I recently saw the enthralling Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers flick Swing Time. In it Astaire dances alone in a performance called Bojangles of Harlem. (Yes, he's in blackface but they did stuff like that back then.) Not surprisingly, it reminded me of the beautiful and oh-so-poignant Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song, Mr. Bojangles.
Jerry Jeff Walker (check that link out, it's a great performance!), it refers to a man in New Orleans who got rounded up with other street performers during the investigation of a murder, while Walker himself was in the slammer for public drunkenness. It was common to nickname the inmates during their time in the jail, and one of them continued to dance even after being locked up, so was dubbed Mr. Bojangles. The song was the result of Walker's close encounter with him, according to his memoir, Gypsy Songman.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which in its earliest incarnation in 1965 included Jackson Browne, was known for incorporating jug band instruments into its songs, certainly not common in pop at the time. John Sebastian used to do it in the Lovin' Spoonful but that's about it. The instrumentation of Mr. Bojangles, which included mandolin, calliope and accordian, made the hard luck sadness of the song's narrative easier to bear, I suppose - something about the man's faithful companion dog up and dying and 20 years of subsequent grieving was particularly heart rending.
The song has become a true folk song, performed and interpreted by everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone to Chet Atkins and Bob Dylan. And scores of others.