On “Mr. Bojangles” (R.I.P. Jerry Jeff Walker)

We just learned of the passing of Jerry Jeff Walker (1942-2020) today. My tribute to him will be the opposite of the usual. Normally I like to provide broader perspective than other eulogists, and tell you stuff you might not automatically know. In this case, I will keep the focus on just one single song.

Walker wrote and recorded “Mr. Bojangles” in 1968, but it was so widely covered that it was immediately diffused through the whole culture, through radio and television. I was at a young, impressionable age at the time and the story it tells, of a drunken, busking street corner tap dancer/ hobo and his little dog, seemed aimed right at my sensibilities. I feel like I saw it dramatized in a TV movie once. I’m racking my brain this morning for what it was called and who was in it — if it comes to me, I’ll update this post. I’ve had many occasions to refer to the song (it’s in my book No Applause, for example). The nickname “Bojangles” had belonged to the great stage and screen dancer Bill Robinson, and though the song is not about him, many people have performed it as though it is. I associate it very much with that period of nostaglia in the 70s I wrote about here.

Sammy Davis Jr made it one of his signature tunes in 1972 and built a whole sentimental number around it that I’m sure I saw on television. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had the biggest hit with it in 1970, but it was also covered by Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, and George Burns! (all in 1969), Lulu, John Denver, and Harry Belafonte (all 1970), Nina Simone (1971), Bob Dylan (1973), etc etc etc, throughout the decades. It just struck a chord that spoke to young and old alike.

“The dog up and died, the dog up and died” — that’s how you reach a five year old.