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Mr. Bojangles

November 1, 2019

Okay, first of all I’m not talking chicken here so relax and put down that beer!

Mr. Bojangles is a terrifically popular song written by Jerry Jeff Walker. The authorship may surprise a few of you outside the songwriting industry as it was the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that first made the song popular followed by Sammy Davis Jr. Let’s take a look.

American country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker wrote this song for his 1968 album of the same title. Since then, it has been recorded by many other artists, including US country music band the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose 1970 version was issued as a single and rose to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. Live versions of the song appeared on Walker’s 1977 album, A Man Must Carry On, and his 1980 album The Best of Jerry Jeff Walker and he sang it with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their 2015 concert album entitled “Circlin’ Back”. The song, however, is most widely associated with Sammy Davis Jr., who made the song part of his stage shows and live television performances for nearly two decades.

Many recording artists have covered this song. They include: Kristofer Åström, Chet Atkins, Hugues Aufray (French version, 1984), Harry Belafonte, Bermuda Triangle Band, David Bromberg, Garth Brooks, Dennis Brown, George Burns, David Campbell, Bobby Cole, Edwyn Collins, Jim Croce, Jamie Cullum, King Curtis, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, Neil Diamond, Cornell Dupree, Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, Arlo Guthrie, Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Whitney Houston, Queen Ifrica, Billy Joel, Dave Jarvis, Elton John, Frankie Laine, Lulu, Rod McKuen, Don McLean, MC Neat, Bebe Neuwirth, Harry Nilsson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Paycheck, Esther Phillips, Ray Quinn, Mike Schank, Helge Schneider, Nina Simone, Corben Simpson, Todd Snider, Cat Stevens, Jim Stafford, Jud Strunk, Radka Toneff, Bradley Walsh, Robbie Williams, Paul Winter and yours truly.

Here are the sympathetic lyrics in their entirety:

I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high
He jumped so high
Then he’d lightly touch 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
He 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, a better stance
Oh, he jumped so high
Then he clicked his heels
He let go a laugh
He let go a laugh
Pushed back his clothes all around
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
He danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs
Throughout the south
He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
Traveled about
The dog up and died
He up and died
After twenty 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
He said 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

I have to insert a short note here. When I played professionally during the 1970’s, this song was often requested so I played it quite often. At home my little boy, who I raised by myself, used to always ask tearfully, “Why did the dog have to die?” Life’s lessons come early.

Jerry Jeff Walker is credited with saying he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail. While in jail for public intoxication in 1965, Walker met a homeless black man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police. He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about many things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, so Mr. Bojangles obliged with a short tap dance.

Here is the most popular version of the song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band:

Here’s my favorite rendition, that of Sammy Davis Jr.

Which do you like best? Let’s hear from some of you followers out there!

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From → America, History, Music

  1. Fascinating to learn the song’s background.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I always loved this song and would hum it to myself. There is just something very uplifting about the lyrics and melody. Dancing is such a wonderful can dance on the front porch or in a barn for that matter. This Mr Bojangles resonates with us…the upbeat, get up and try again motif in life. And when all else fails, you can still sing and dance…who is there to stop you? Most of all, those who entertain us with their singing and dancing are very special people…music is a balm for most any ailment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful post! I grew up with the Jim Stanford version. Had no idea so many artists had covered this song. Love the backstory on it, too.
    The SDJ video version is great. It made me wonder how he would have done it with a modern, hands-free microphone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Eilene! Your question about the microphone is a good one. We’ll never get to know. Things have changed so much so fast. Back when I was a producer, we had a huge 32 track mixing board that was all analog. Part of my job was to “twirl knobs.” You can do the same thing on a laptop now!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I grew up with the rock version and prefer it. But an amazing performance by Sammy Davis Jr. I always thought it was such a sad song. And Sammy’s performance really brings that home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The NGDB version is certainly richer instrumentally but Sammy Davis Jr. added his dancing and theatrical skills to bring you into the jail cells.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My vote is for the original.

    Liked by 1 person

    Thank you, Chris
    I love the original also…

    Liked by 1 person

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