Friday, October 16, 2009

Mr. Bojangles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1971)

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.

Like a lot of people, I assumed the song was about the famous tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  Except that it wasn't.  Written and recorded by 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.


Wade said...

My first exposure to this song, when I was about eight years old, was Jim Stafford's cover, which had a spoken word recitation in a Walter Brennan-esque voice in the middle of it. I'm sure it's awful, but I was mesmerized by it. (I learned only recently that Jim Stafford was married to Bobbie Gentry for a while. Not sure if that changes anything in my world view.)

I heard Jerry Jeff's version a couple of years later, and it's the one I know best. I was fifteen or so when I bought NGDB's "Uncle Charlie" album, which had that song on it and which I recall as being a very good album (when I say "album" understand I mean "eight-track"). I did not know Jackson Browne was part of that group. I never got a handle on that group's pedigree at all and couldn't name a single member or alumni of it. I remember the Dirt Band phase of the early eighties and had a couple of those easy-listening albums ("Make a Little Magic" and the song that goes "Keep on talking, mama, I like that sound." Ahh, the memories.

Snooty Primadona said...

I remember going to see NGDB all the time at what was then called *Little Nell's* in Aspen, at the base of Ajax mountain. They performed there all the time & would have an array of different musicians stop by to play with them. Freddie King & B.B. King played there as well. It was THE hot spot for music back then. I believe I was something like 20 at the time, which never prevented me from getting into any bar in town. I was a local kid. They sure were surprised when I celebrated my 21st BD there, LOL!

And, ya gotta just love Jerry Jeff Walker, huh?

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