56: Mr. Bojangles

56: Mr. Bojangles

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Mr. Bojangles

Story by Jerry Jeff Walker

Song written by Jerry Jeff Walker

Recorded by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others

The song “Mr. Bojangles” is a true story. It happened almost exactly the way I wrote it. I was in the first precinct city jail in New Orleans. The building’s not there anymore. There was a murder in the French Quarter one weekend. Somebody had been stabbed to death. The police wanted to prove that they were really looking for their man and show a better arrest record, so they rounded up all the street people — all the dancers, painters, singers, jugglers, and bums. It resulted in a 60% increase from their normal arrest record.

I was one of the street characters and we all were thrown in, which made the jail cells quite crowded. It happened to be a holiday weekend, so it was about four days before we could see a judge and then we were either bailed out or let go.

I was just a young kid, 19 or 20, so I was nervous. This old guy came in and sat down near me. He said, “I’ll just sit over here, kid. I won’t bother you.” He was white, because the jails were segregated then. This was around 1964. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, so I said, “Sure, have a seat.”

As you can imagine, we got pretty bored over the course of those three or four days and we needed to pass the time. We started singing and telling stories. And this fellow started telling us about his life.

It turns out he was an old Vaudeville-style entertainer. He had done a lot of dancing and singing for different shows over the years. He said his name was just Bojangles, not “Mr. Bojangles” — just Bojangles. There was a famous black dancer named Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and some people think this was a story about him, but this was someone entirely different.

He started telling us stories about his life and all of his travels and other things. He told us he had a dog that traveled with him for about twenty years and was his best friend. I changed that to fifteen years in the song because the line, “he spoke in tears of fifteen years how his dog and him, traveled about” just flowed a little better than “twenty years.” He stopped to get gas one day and his dog saw a female dog and started to run after her, maybe because she was in heat. When he did, he ran across the street and was hit by a car. Bojangles really got choked up when he talked about his dog, just like it says in the song.

When he was done telling his stories, one of the other guys in the cell yelled, “Hey Bojangles, dance!” I remember he hiked up his trousers and started dancing a soft shoe for us. That’s when he told us how he used to dance at minstrel shows and now he danced on the street corners and in honky-tonks for tips, but said he spent a lot of time in the jail when he drank too much.

When Monday finally rolled around, we got a chance to see a judge and he saw that we were harmless, so he let us go. I don’t know if they solved the murder that week or not, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I got back on the highway, stuck my thumb out and started hitchhiking. I lived like that for several years, just playing my guitar on street corners or in coffee shops or wherever I could. This was at the beginning of the hippie era, so in every major city, there was a coffee shop on just about every corner, where people sang and read poetry or played music and you could make enough money to pay for your meals, and maybe a room and a shower before you got back on the road to the next city.

Sometimes, if I was having a hard time getting a ride, I would make up a sign that said, “Veteran” or “need ride back to college” or something that would make people trust me more, and then I could get a ride easier. I would often head up north during the summer months, where it wasn’t quite as hot.

Over the next few days after I got out of jail, I started writing the song. I actually added another verse about his several marriages, but the song was getting too long, so I cut that one verse. I’ve always loved stories and characters and this was one character who had a lot of living to share in his stories. I finished it within a few days and then put it away.

That vagabond life was a pretty interesting way to live for a few years. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I got a lot of material for songs during those years.

Mr. Bojangles

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, please. . .

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles

Mr. Bojangles, dance.

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