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
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.
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.
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.