The earliest known surviving set of Jerry Jeff Walker’s handwritten lyrics for “Mr. Bojangles” exist because a plucky young guitar repairman in New Jersey asked Walker to write them down so he could learn the song.
Walker wasn’t yet a star in 1968. But he did have an amazing folk song on the radio in the New York area, and John Pascale at the Guild Guitar Co. loved “Mr. Bojangles” from the first time he heard it.
The song drew a portrait of a down-and-out traveling man named Bojangles who danced a lick across his jail cell yet still mourned his dog after 20 years. Its lyrics were inspired by a stranger Walker met during his time in a New Orleans jail after being arrested in the French Quarter on July 5, 1965.
Pop music critic Ellen Sander in the New York Times described it as “a masterpiece of a pop song, one of the finest contemporary folk poems ever set to melody” in a record review that year.
Pascale, a professional musician who played guitar, wanted to learn the words to sing it with his band but couldn’t find the single in record shops.
“That wasn’t a song you wanted to fumble through because of all the lyrics,” Pascale recounted. “It was not yet in the stores.”
It wasn’t unusual for musicians like Joan Baez and George Benson to drop in at Guild in Hoboken, NJ in the 1960s. Within the first couple of weeks of hearing “Mr. Bojangles” on the radio, Pascale learned that Walker was at the factory. He stopped the singer-songwriter in the hallway outside his work bench.
Pascale recalls his first words to him: “I think I know who you are. You’re Jerry Jeff Walker.”
Walker was taken slightly aback. “I think he was shocked that I knew who he was,” Pascale recalled. Then, Pascale asked if Walker would write down the words to “Mr. Bojangles.” Pascale explained that he wanted to sing it.
Walker didn’t hesitate. “His exact words: ‘You got a paper and pencil?’”
Pascale was ready with a stool, clipboard, and a sharpened pencil. For paper, he flipped over his Guild daily production reports.
“It was the quickest thing I could come up with,” Pascale explained. He sat next to Jerry Jeff as he wrote down the lyrics.
“He was sort of humming the song to himself,” Pascale recalled. “That’s when my heart started pounding. He didn’t have to do it.”
Three weathered lyric sheets — dating to the summer of 1968 and written in Walker’s distinctive cursive with a pencil on the back of Guild Guitar Company worksheets — will soon to be on permanent display at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
Earl Casey, a world-renowned journalist and ally of Walker who spent years doing the deep research for Walker’s 1999 memoir “Gypsy Songman,” said the unearthed lyrics are a historic find.
“It may actually be the only early copy of those lyrics,” said Casey. “It’s amazing that he saved it.”
After more than half a century, Pascale’s memory is admittedly a little fuzzy about some of the details.
He can’t remember why Walker was at Guild that day when “the song was just hitting.” Most likely it was to have a guitar repaired, Pascale said. Possibly it was for work on the same sunburst jumbo Guild acoustic guitar that Walker was photographed playing at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin in 1971.
Pascale also regrets that he didn’t get Walker to sign and date the lyric pages — and that they are stained. (He used to take the sheets to nightclub gigs with his old band the Nomads and would place them on the floor in front of his microphone).
But he never forgot the act of kindness and somehow managed to hang on to the pages. Pascale, who resides in New Jersey, has generously donated the lyrics to The Wittliff “so that his fans could see this side of him that I experienced.”