'Mr. Bojangles': The Story Behind the Jerry Jeff Walker Classic

"Mr. Bojangles" was written by Grammy-nominated country music artist and American icon from Austin, Texas, Jerry Jeff Walker for his 1968 album of the same name. It's been covered by multiple artists, including Bob Dylan, John Denver, Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose 1970 cover rose to number nine in the 1971 Billboard top 100 charts. The covers have been as diverse as they have been impressive.

Who was the original "Mr. Bojangles" who inspired Walker to write this well-known country music song? Believe it or not, it was based on a homeless man he met in a New Orleans jail. The man referred to himself as "Mr. Bojangles" and regaled Walker with various stories about his life. While in the cell, Mr. Bojangles talked about his dog who had died. When one of the other men requested for someone to cheer everyone up, "Mr. Bojangles" hopped up and performed a tap dance.

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The nickname likely originated with the tap dancer and performer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. You might recognize him from some classic 1930s Hollywood films, such as Shirley Temple's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. His success led to many street performers being called "Bojangles," which inspired Walker's jail cell buddy's alias (mostly to keep his true name under wraps from the cops). With the background on that legendary, timeless name in mind, Jerry Jeff Walker's song takes on a whole new meaning and brings that character to life. It's a fitting character for someone nicknamed "The Gypsy Songman" to write about, we might add. The tune has left an indelible print on American country music and the outlaw movement out of Nashville that Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson started.

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This article was originally published in 2018.



"Mr. Bojangles" Lyrics:

I knew a man Bojangles and he'd dance for you
In worn out shoes
With silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high, jumped so high
Then he lightly touched down

I met him in a cell in New Orleans I was
down and out
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
as he spoke right out
He talked of life, talked of life, he laughed
clicked his heels and stepped
He said his name "Bojangles" and he danced a lick
across the cell

He grabbed his pants and spread his stance,
Oh he jumped so high and then he clicked his heels
He let go a laugh, let go a laugh
and shook back his clothes all around

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, dance

He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs
throughout the south
He spoke through tears of 15 years how his dog and him
traveled about
The dog up and died, he up and died
And after 20 years he still grieves

He said I dance now at every chance in honky tonks
for drinks and tips
But most the time I spend behind these county bars
'cause I drinks a bit
He shook his head, and as he shook his head
I heard someone ask him please

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, dance

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'Mr. Bojangles': The Story Behind the Jerry Jeff Walker Classic