…I dance now at ev’ry chance in honky-tonks

Born in Oneonta, New York in 1942, Ronald Clyde Crosby was rather a wandering sort as a young man.  After enlisting in the National Guard he went AWOL to travel around the country, busking with his ukulele, from New York to Florida, then on to Louisiana, Texas and California.  After switching to the guitar and making his way back east he joined the Greenwich Village folk scene and eventually adopted his stage name, Jerry Jeff Walker.

In the 1968 Jerry Jeff wrote the song that would make him famous and featured it on his seminal album of the same title.  As you’ll hear, it was inspired by an encounter in a New Orleans jail cell in 1965, with an aging street performer who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police.

Not to be confused with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous, black tap dancer of the 1930s, this Mr. Bojangles was actually Caucasian (New Orleans jail cells were segregated at the time) and he and Jerry Jeff and others in the cell chatted for days.  Indeed, when Mr. Bojangles told the story of his dog, the atmosphere apparently dampened until a call came out to lighten the mood, and the old man began to dance…

Numerous cover versions of “Mr. Bojangles” including today’s, are far better known than Walker’s original, particularly that of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but as with other classic songs, there’s a fascinating array of popular artists who have recorded it, including: Cat Stevens, Harry Belafonte, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Nina Simone, Don McLean, Harry Nilsson, Lulu, Rod McKuen, Frank Sinatra, The Byrds, J.J. Cale, Harry Chapin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Dylan, Chet Atkins, Hugues Aufray (in a 1984 French version), Elton John, Frankie Laine, Garth Brooks, Arlo Guthrie, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Jim Stafford, and Bebe Neuwirth (remember “Frasier’s” ex-wife?)

A choreographed version of “Mr Bojangles” was also featured in Bob Fosse’s 1978 Broadway show, “Dancin’” and the song is even referenced in Philip Glass’ 1976 minimalist opera, “Einstein On The Beach”.

I’m pleased to say that I saw it performed live by David Bromberg, who had been one of Walker’s band members on the original version, when he shared a concert billing with John Sebastian at Boston College’s Roberts Center in November of 1976.  Bromberg, who grew up in Tarrytown, NY, toured extensively throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s with his Bluegrass, Folk, Blues, Jazz, Country & Western and Rock n’ Roll catalog of covers and originals.

In recent years, he and his wife have concentrated on running a violin sales and repair shop in Wilmington, Delaware and he makes only occasional appearances… like tonight when he’s billed with Loudon Wainwright III at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. Today’s selection is a track from Bromberg’s 1972 album, “Demon in Disguise”.  Ask me later if he still remembers all the words.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Thursday 14 June

Mr. Bojangles

I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you

In worn out shoes

With 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

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles

Dance!

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 laugh-slapped his leg a step

He said the name, Bojangles and he danced a lick

Across the cell

He grabbed his pants, a better stance, he jumped up high

 
He clicked his heels

He let go a laugh, he let go a laugh

Shook back his clothes all around

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles

Dance!

This is really a true story, you know, a lot of people have heard the song, and…

Well, at least, Jerry Jeff tells me it’s a true… true story.

I played guitar with Jerry Jeff Walker for about two years and we…

We did this song every night for two years., and I never got tired of it.

Jerry got a little tired of it — at night, after the clubs would close,

We’d do horrible things to it…

‘Twas a true story, he… this guy, Bojangles,

Was a… he was a street dancer in New Orleans,

And what he’d do, he’d go from bar to bar and…

He’d put money in the jukebox, or get somebody else to do it…

And then he’d either dance or pantomime the tune.

And for that, people would buy him drinks and get him pretty drunk,

And then he’d go on to the next bar, and the next one, until it was closing time…

And then he’d go on, the next night.

After a few nights of this, he’d end up on the corner,

And the cops would pick him up and then take him to the drunktank –

This is where Jerry Jeff met him.

Jerry Jeff wasn’t there on a research project –

I mean, the way I got that story, I may have that wrong,

But the way I got that is that he propositioned the right woman at the right time

And the wrong place — and her husband, the bartender…

Called the cops, and they took Jerry to the… Parish jail.

And he and this guy just talked for three days in the cell about what’ve you got…

He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs

Throughout the South

He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him

Had traveled about

His dog up and died, he up and died

After 20 years he still grieves

Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles

Dance!

He said “I dance now at ev’ry chance in honky-tonks

For drinks and tips

But most of 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

“Please, 
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles

Dance!”

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