Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker attends a fundraiser at Willie Nelson's ranch outside Austin, Texas, on Oct. 30, 2005.

The Canadian Press

One night after last call in Santa Fe, Jerry Jeff Walker and his protégé Todd Snider were walking back to their hotel when they heard someone playing Mr. Bojangles, a well-known song Walker had written years before. Following the sound, they came across what looked to be a homeless man on a deserted street. He sang and played a banjo and a rack harmonica, with an empty hat for loose change in front of him.

I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you

In worn out shoes, silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants

Story continues below advertisement

The old soft shoe

When he finished the song, Walker emptied his pockets and put all the money he had on him into the hat. “That sounded great,” he said, according to Snider’s account in his book I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. They then continued on to their hotel.

Walker, a wry, laconic Texas-based troubadour, died of throat cancer on Friday at age 78. He lived life hard, full and freewheeling, especially in the 1960s and 70s. He was driven to write Mr. Bojangles, a Top 40 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, after encountering a street performer who told him his life story while in a New Orleans jail in 1965. Walker was in for public intoxication.

The waltzing ballad can be seen both as a poignant portrayal of a performer past their prime and a mellow message about the demands put upon artists. Mr. Bojangles is asked to dance; he complies. It’s what he does. It is also what his audience wants and expects.

Years later, when confronted with the song on the night in Santa Fe, it’s not hard to imagine Walker seeing himself as Mr. Bojangles. The song had poetically morphed over the years into sombre autobiography.

Walker recorded many albums, wrote many songs, helped pioneer the so-called cosmic country genre and inspired not only Snider but Jimmy Buffett, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams and others. But he had to play Mr. Bojangles every night he had a show, giving the converted what they wanted – the old soft shoe.

Walker was close friends with Gordon Lightfoot. Walker may or may not have given Lightfoot the shirt off his back, but he did gift Lightfoot the mottled brown leather jacket he wore for the cover shot of his 1972 album Don Quixote and the 1975 compilation Gord’s Gold. “I loved that jacket, so I guess that’s how much I loved Gordon,” Walker told Lightfoot biographer Nicholas Jennings.

Story continues below advertisement

I spoke to Lightfoot once about songwriters who stop writing songs. It was in 2016. He hadn’t released a studio album in some time. “Maybe it’s because I’m lazy," he said. “I don’t know what it is. I just thought having done 20 albums, it’s enough.”

Frustrated by the line of questioning, Lightfoot then mentioned another songwriter who’d been in a dry spell. “You know, I’d love to hear something from Jerry Jeff Walker, but he hasn’t done anything in years either. Why don’t you talk to him?"

So I did. And when I asked Walker about not writing songs anymore, he said he simply had nothing new to offer. “I don’t know what I’d talk about in life any more. When you go to write, you think, ‘I’ve written something in that area already.’ "

What Walker often wrote about was the singer-songwriter’s life. “And if there’s time enough, and the hill ain’t too rough, what I wrote today I might someday play and make some tips for it,” he sang on The Ballad of the Hulk. He also wrote The Poet is Not in Today and elsewhere pledged his commitment to an entertainer’s road-dog lifestyle: “So I keep singing about the driftin' way of life.”

He titled his 1999 memoir after one of his songs, Gypsy Songman. “Yeah, my whole life is a song, and I’ll share it with you now,” he sang. “Pickin' and a singin', I’ll get by somehow. A dime would help me, please, a smile is all I need – gypsy songman passing by.”

Gypsy Songman is akin to Lightfoot’s self-assessing A Painter Passing Through. Both Lightfoot and Walker did end up putting out new material after I spoke with them. “Having said everything I ever wanted to say, should I still feel uncool or uptight?” Lightfoot asked on his 2020 album Solo.

Story continues below advertisement

As for Walker, he led off his last album, It’s About Time, in 2018 with That’s Why I Play. On it he sings that his grandmother gave him love and a Harmony guitar. “She said you need something in life to express who you are.”

Which he did, and we got the story. We knew a man named Jerry Jeff Walker, and he danced for us.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies