I was feeling a little melancholy this morning when I remembered the song, “Mr. Bojangles” written and recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968 and covered by many artists but most noticeable by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1971.
In Jerry Jeff Walker’s autobiography,” Gypsy Songman,” Walker said that he had been arrested earlier on the 4th of July weekend in 1965 for public drunkenness in New Orleans’s First Precinct Jail. According to Walker, the song was inspired by an encounter with a street performer whom he shared the cell with. Walker mentions that all the men in the cell had nicknames to prevent easy identification by the police and this one particular street dancer’s nickname was, “Mr. Bojangles.”
On that day that Walker was in jail, a murder in New Orleans precipitated the arrest of all the street people in the area and in the crowded cell this disheveled, homeless, old man street dance performer, began to talk to Walker. Walker said that the man told various stories of his life, but the tone darkened when Mr. Bojangles recalled he had a dog that had been run over. Someone then asked for something to lighten the mood, and the man obliged with a tap dance.
In his autobiography, Walker dispelled the urban legend that the song did not refer to the famous stage and movie dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Walker made it clear that the man he met was white and in a later interview with BBC Radio 4 in August 2008, Walker pointed out that at the time in 1965, the jail cells in New Orleans were segregated by color.
With this history of the song, I decided to attach the song performed by the man who was originally inspired to write the song. Enjoy.