Music

'Mr. Bojangles': The Story Behind the Song

"Mr. Bojangles," written by Grammy-nominated country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker-- aka The Gypsy Songman -- for his 1968 album of the same name, the song has become an American icon, having been covered by the likes of Bob DylanJohn DenverNina Simone, Whitney Houston, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis Jr. and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose 1970 cover rose to number 9 in the 1971 Billboard top 100 charts. Its covers have been as diverse as they have been impressive, their sounds ranging from Hollywood to Texas, but always staying truly American.

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 and then created a depressing mood in the cell when he 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.

Read More: How Jerry Jeff Walker's 'Viva Terlingua' Shaped Outlaw Country Music

The nickname makes sense since it originated with tap dancer and performer, Bill Robinson. You might recognize him from some classic 1930s films like Shirley Temple's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. His success led to many street performers being called "Bojangles," which obviously inspired Walker's jail 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. 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.

Read More: Real Life Love Stories That Inspired Popular Country Songs

"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

Now Watch: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Randy Travis

recommended for you

'Mr. Bojangles': The Story Behind the Song