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The Unexpected Story Behind Jerry Jeff Walker’s Hit Song “Mr. Bojangles”

Jerry Jeff Walker + Mr. Bojangles
by

In 1968, American country and folk singer Jerry Jeff Walker released a song, Mr. Bojangles, as part of his album of the same title.

Upon its release, the song immediately climbed up the charts, landing at no. 77 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and no. 51 on Canada’s (RPM) Top Singles – making it one of Jerry Jeff Walker’s best songs

Due to the song’s unique tune, aside from listeners, other amazing artists like Nitty Gritty Dirt Band also released their version in 1969. The US country rock band’s version, in particular, was considered the most commercially successful version of “Mr. Bojangles,” with their rendition making the no. 9 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. 

But aside from its catchy beat, the story behind the song is something fans weren’t expecting. For decades, listeners thought that “Mr. Bojangles” was the black tap dancer and actor Bill Robinson, who used “Bojangles” as his stage name. So many listeners associated the song with him, thinking that Robinson might be the inspiration behind it—which is not the case at all. 

So, who was “Mr. Bojangles” written about? Let’s dive right into it. 

Meaning Behind the Song 

Written by Jerry Jeff Walker, the song simply describes a man named Mr. Bojangles, as the title may suggest. Throughout the song, Jerry describes this man as someone fun to be with. With so many life lessons to give, Mr. Bojangles left a good impression on Jerry. But some may wonder, who is this Mr. Bojangles, anyway? 

Jerry wrote in his book Gypsy Songman that he got the inspiration for the song after an encounter with a man he met in jail for public intoxication. This street performer, who was also homeless, called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police.

Mr. Bojangles would tell stories from being arrested when police conducted a sweep of disadvantaged people to his dog dying from a car accident. To lighten the mood, he would dance. Mr. Bojangles had that sense of humor that Jerry and their other cellmates got hooked on. 

If you want to learn more about “Mr. Bojangles,” you can watch Jerry Jeff Walker’s amazing performance below. 

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