January 2

The Real Inspiration Behind the Song “Mr. Bojangles”

Sometime in the mid-‘60s, the American country music singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker wrote a song he entitled as “Mr. Bojangles.” He was also the first to record in 1968. Several decades earlier, a Black tap dancer and actor named Bill Robinson used “Bojangles” as a nickname. He was the best-known African-American entertainer in the 1930s. Because of this, when Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” became a hit, many associated the song with Robinson, referring to him being the inspiration behind it. Walker has opposed such belief though.

Listen to Walker’s original version of the song below.

Who is “Mr. Bojangles?”

The singer-songwriter from Oneonta, New York traveled a lot across the country playing country music. While he was spending his time in New Orleans, Walker had an awkward encounter that sent him to jail. He was slightly drunk that time and suddenly made a public display where he tried to convince a young lady about the reality of love at first sight. While Walker was in jail, he met a white guy who told him the story of his life. He was a street performer andhad been arrested when police conducted a sweep of indigent people after aprominent murder. The white guy tried to hide his true identify from the policeso he used the nickname “Bojangles.” The fact that this man is white alreadycontradicted the association of the song to Robinson who is actually a Black.

“Mr. Bojangles” talked a lot of things about him. The most remarkable story he told Walker and the other inmates though was about his dead dog. After this, everyone listening to him turned quite emotional. To lighten the mood in the cell, one of the detainees asked for something. “Mr. Bojangles” was then obliged to do a tap dance to cheer them up.

When Walker moved to Texas, he was inspired to write a song about the encounter he had at the New Orleans jail. This led to the birth of the song “Mr. Bojangles.” The song is a 6/8 waltz about an old man and hope.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Version

While Walker was the first to record the song in 1968, it was The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who made it famous. They released it as a single on their 1970 album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy. The cover rose to the Top 10 of Billboard Hot 100, peaking specifically at No. 9 a year later. Walker re-released the song twice, one was a live version which appeared on his 1977 album A Man Must Carry On. The second record came out in 1980 and was included on The Best of Jerry Jeff Walker album. In 2015, he had a concert album with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band called Circlin’ Back where they performed the song.    

Here is The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover.

Watch Walker’s live performance of “Mr. Bojangles” with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band below.


Jerry Jeff Walker

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