"Mr. Bojangles" was the nickname used by Bill Robinson, a Black tap dancer who appeared in many movies in the 1930s, including with Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. After Robinson's success, many Black street dancers became known as "Bojangles."
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 man who made a living as a street dancer. He 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."
Walker wrote another verse to the song, but didn't perform it because he couldn't fit it all in. This verse was about the three wives the man in jail told him about.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version starts with a spoken intro called "Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy."
Some of the many artists to record this song include Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, John Denver, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond.
Jerry Jeff Walker told American Songwriter Magazine May/June 1988 that the success of this showed that songs needn't conform to rules. He explained: "'Bojangles' broke all the rules. It was too long, was 6/9 time, about an old drunk and a dead dog. They had so many reasons why it didn't fit anything. It would have never been a song if I had been living in Nashville and tried to take it through there. I recorded it in New York. I've always had my record deals through New York or L.A."
According to Jerry Jeff Walker's confrere Todd Snider, Jerry Jeff was known for a time as "Mr. Blowjangles" because of his raging cocaine habit. Todd quotes Jerry Jeff as saying: "A line of cocaine will make a new man out of you - and he'll want some too."
Because of the Bill Robinson association many listeners envision Mr. Bojangles as a Black man, but in an interview with NPR, Jerry Jeff Walker said the drunk dancer in the New Orleans jail who inspired the song was white - at the time, the jail was segregated by race. In the song, Bojangles danced at minstrel shows, which for the most part were white performers in blackface.