Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker who wrote the poignant drifter ballad ‘Mister Bojangles’ died Friday, October 23. He was 78.
‘There’s a photo on the back of a long-out-of-print Jerry Jeff Walker album that sums it all up — Jerry Jeff is outside an old roadhouse on a lonesome highway.It’s night, and his collar is turned up against the chill breeze as he hunches over to light a cigarette. His guitar is slung around his back. It’s hard to tell if he’s entering or leaving the roadhouse, but either way you figure he’s got many miles to go before he sleeps…’ — From jerryjeff.com
INSPIRATION IN THE SLAMMER
Jerry Jeff Walker wrote ‘Mister Bojangles’ after a stint in a New Orleans drunk tank in 1965 with an unknown tap-dancing drifter.
Walker was unknown too, singing in coffee houses and on street corners when he was arrested for public intoxication in the Big Easy’s French Quarter.
His tap dancing cellmate, a white man, went by the nickname Bojangles, after Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a famous Black vaudeville and early film tap dancer of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Bojangles the drifter told Walker and the other inmates many stories about his life, the saddest being about his beloved dog that died.
‘He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
The dog up and died
He up and died
After twenty years he still grieves’
The jailbirds got so emotional over the story that Bojangles did a tap dance to cheer them up.
The song has been incorrectly associated with the black tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Jerry Jeff Walker said that ain’t so. The song was inspired by the drifter in the New Orleans drunk tank.
In the song, Mr Bojangles is a heavy drinker and had a dog that died. The earlier-era “Bojangles” didn’t imbibe and never had a dog.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the highest paid black entertainer of the 1930s and ‘40s, performing in movies with child star Shirley Temple. Despite his success, he died penniless in 1949.
JERRY JEFF WALKER’S ‘MISTER BOJANGLES’
NITTY GRITTY DIRT BAND
Walker wrote the song in 1968 but it didn’t become a hit until the early 1970s when The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other performers recorded it.
TOR HOLSTRÖM drifted into New Orleans like a tropical breeze, inviting yet elusive. He was a rakish figure, tall and lean, fair hair tousled in the wind. Here was a man who moved lightly through life.
He “lived above the fray,” as he once put it. He was a young itinerant writer with no permanent home. A single man, a restless man, flying back and forth across America like an insomniac pacing his room.
In November of 2004 he touched down in New Orleans. He checked into a hotel in the French Quarter and began partying in that community. At a local nightspot he met a young woman named Sarah. When he introduced himself she already knew his name. She had read his last novel, The Suitcase Man, but found it “superficial” and not in the same league as the one that came before it, Sleep the Small Death.
“Now that was a hell of a book,” she told him.
I’m sure he stared into her dark-brown eyes, scanned her thick, auburn hair, the untamed eyebrows, the generous mouth. Sarah was an earthy, vibrant woman.
Things moved quickly after that.
On their second date, he told her about his vagabond lifestyle. That’s when he used the phrase “above the fray.” Sarah was a wordsmith, too. She was an editor at the Times-Picayune. “You’re Scandinavian,” she said. “Instead of living above the fray, you should live according to Frey,” she said, spelling the word.
“The Norse god of weather,” he acknowledged.
“Not just weather,” she noted, “ but the god of fertility, crops, peace and prosperity.”
Sarah told me she looked into his eyes at that moment and said to him, “That’s what you—what we should have, Tor, each of those things. We should live in a house, plant crops, be fertile—in the soil and in the body—and live a peaceful and prosperous life.
Sarah told me she then sang a line from an old folk song about a boll weevil who says to the farmer, “You’ve gotta have a home, you’ve gotta have a home.” This is what Sarah sang to Tor in a low, slow voice.
“Listen to the boll weevil,” she urged him.
FINALLY A HOME
And so he did, and they embarked on all the things she had mentioned. They got married, bought a house and lay the groundwork for a fertile, peaceful and prosperous life.
Tor Holmström, the wandering novelist, finally had a home. He told me about a week after they were married that all the aimless flying around in the sky had been worth it, to arrive at that point with his “earthen Sarah,” as he called her.
The earth was good to them. It was the sky that was insane. One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic was heading for the Louisiana coast.
On the morning of Sunday, August 28, 2005, the mayor of New Orleans issued an evacuation order. Tens of thousands of residents begin leaving the city. Tor and Sarah held their ground. Early next morning, Katrina hit. Winds of 150 miles an hour pushed the Gulf of Mexico into waves forty feet high. Water surged over the levees and flooded the city. Destruction and chaos were immediate. Evacuees who couldn’t get out of town packed the Superdome.
INTO THE MAELSTROM
Tor and Sarah were caught in the maelstrom. The hurricane demolished their house. They ran hand-in-hand from the ruins. Debris rained down. A flying brick smashed into Sarah’s head. She fell all at once. The hurricane didn’t miss a beat.
Tor cradled her head. She died like that.
Holmström, I believe, would have prayed for his own death. A witness heard him yell at the sky: “Don’t leave me like this, you bastard!” An impious but fervent prayer.
As if to hasten his own death, he lay Sarah to one side and walked into the hurricane. I learned this from a neighbor, a doctor who witnessed the whole tragedy. Walking away like that, not staying with his wife was a selfish act, perhaps, but I understand it. Here was a man who, until he met Sarah, couldn’t make a commitment to anyone or anything. And when he finally did, it was torn from him.
That was the last time Tor Holmström would ever listen to the boll weevil. And that was the last time, as far as I know, anyone ever saw him. Nobody I talked to afterwards knew what happened to him.
More than 1,800 people were killed by the hurricane and hundreds more went missing. Many were never identified. After some time had passed, I figured Holmström was in that number. Even years after Katrina, there were no definite figures on the dead and the missing. The bodies of many unidentified victims were buried in a field on top of the former Charity Hospital Cemetery. Perhaps Tor Holmström was among them.
On the chance he didn’t die, I have tried to locate him these past years. I google his name from time to time, in case he’s gone back to writing. I contacted his publisher, only to be told they have no current address for him.
“He still gets royalty checks, doesn’t he?” I asked. “Where do you send them?”
His royalty checks, I was informed, were automatically deposited into a bank account, its name and location private information. Holmström could be getting those checks anywhere in the world.
Then, in December of 2011, a break. An essay on the release of the American version of the Swedish film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, appeared in the features section of The New York Times. The byline on the piece was none other than Tor Holmström. When I saw that name I literally jumped out of my chair.
He was alive! Not only that, but here was an opportunity to contact him, something I have desperately wanted to do, but feared was lost forever.
At the end of the essay, there was this biographical line: Tor Holmström is a writer who gets his mail in Key West, Florida.
I read that line with great excitement.
I wrote a letter addressed to Holmström with my phone number, mail and e-mail addresses and enclosed it in a larger envelope that I sent to the features editor of the Times, asking that the letter be forwarded. I waited, hoping, actually expecting in view of what I had put in the letter, to hear from him.
Two weeks went by, a month, two months and then another disappointment. My letter came back: Return to sender, addressee has moved, no forwarding address.
There was one last thing I could try. The next morning I set out on the eighteen-hour drive to Key West, stopping only for gas and just once to grab a fitful sleep in my car.
When I arrived in Key West, I checked into a hotel on Duval Street and began hanging out in the bars on and off the strip, talking to bartenders, writers and other people who might know him, or know of him.
People who did know him told me he had left Key West a month earlier, destination unknown. I drove back to New Orleans in great frustration.
I’m anxious to find him. Sarah was my sister. Five minutes after she died the doctor who lived next door performed a postmortem cesarean as she lay amid the destruction. He retrieved a baby. It is alive today. A boy, seven years old last August.
Tor Holmström (Photo from the jacket of his novel ‘Sleep the Small Death,’ courtesy Norlander Publishing Co.)