This was written and originally released by the singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote the song in the mid-'60s and recorded it in 1968. Walker left his home in upstate New York and traveled the country playing music. He spent some time in New Orleans, where one day he was a bit tipsy and made a public display trying to convince a young lady that love at first sight was real. This landed him in jail, where his cell mate was an older black man who made a living as a street dancer and told Walker all about his life.
In his book Gypsy Songman
, Walker tells the story: "One of the guys in the cell jumped up and said, 'Come on, Bojangles. Give us a little dance.' 'Bojangles' wasn't so much a name as a category of itinerant street entertainer known back as far as the previous century. The old man said, 'Yes, Hell yes.' He jumped up, and started clapping a rhythm, and he began to dance. I spent much of that long holiday weekend talking to the old man, hearing about the tough blows life had dealt him, telling him my own dreams."
Walker moved on to Texas, where he sat down to write: "And here it came, just sort of tumbling out, one straight shot down the length of that yellow pad. On a night when the rest of the country was listening to The Beatles, I was writing a 6/8 waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song. In a lot of ways, Mr. Bojangles is a composite. He's a little bit of several people I met for only moments of a passing life. He's all those I met once and will never see again and will never forget."