Polka Dot Slim. Pork Chops. Babe Stovall. Re-Pete.
They are the nicknames of African American street performers who worked the New Orleans’ French Quarter in the early and mid-1960s. One of them is likely Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles.”
The true identity has remained mysterious. Was it really about an old man Walker met in a New Orleans jail? Was it a composite of street characters who sang the blues and danced for their supper?
One misconception about the famous song is that it’s about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous early 20th century dancer and actor who tap-danced with Shirley Temple and was a genuine star and innovator. Not so.
Sammy Davis Jr. used to sing it so convincingly that many believed it was autobiographical.
In the 1970s, Jerry Jeff Walker met with writer and photographer Douglas Kent Hall to begin work on a movie script about the singer-songwriter’s life. It was to be built around the character of Bojangles, “an old man that tells stories.”
The film never materialized beyond the draft stage. But the extensive interviews conducted offer tantalizing clues about the protagonist of the poetic folk song.
At one point, Walker suggested to Hall, who died in 2008, that he wanted Black actors and white actors to portray Bojangles, and that somehow the magic and wisdom of Bojangles “transfers to me.” Walker died in 2020.
Those forgotten transcripts are part of the Earl Casey Collection at The Wittliff Collection at Texas State University. Casey, a former CNN executive and award-winning journalist, donated the archive in 2018.
(The Douglas Kent Hall Papers, 1950-2011, are housed at the Department of Special Collections at Princeton University Library).
Walker’s signature waltz-time song – first made famous by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – was inspired by a drunken incident and chance meeting in New Orleans in October 1964. That’s when the budding singer-songwriter said he met Bojangles, in jail. He never knew his real name.
That’s how the story goes.
Interview transcripts from the Hall sessions support and contradict the generally accepted origin story. Mixed in is fantastical riffing aimed at creating a fictionalized narrative for Hall’s screenplay. Jerry Jeff is still drinking at the time of these interviews and sometimes out of control, Hall’s widow recalls. (Hall was an excellent choice for the movie project, having written colorfully about Walker’s wild early ’70s antics for Rolling Stone).
“Mr. Bojangles” is born in New Orleans. The French Quarter was the singular, most important formative playground for Walker, who lived and sang there on and off from 1963 to 1965. “I was sleeping on people’s floors,” Walker said about those bleary hitchhiking, busker days.
“Every day I tried to dash off something. I was writing a lot, and melodies (were) pretty fresh to me . . . you’re writing to prove your worth.”
He’d gone AWOL from the New York National Guard and was living under an alias (friends knew him as Jerry Ferris). He’d cut off communication with his parents. “Like, nobody knew where I was for three or four years through the South, it was during the Civil Rights times and all that,” Walker said.
As a hitchhiker and passenger, he listened to, and learned from, stranger’s “highway confessionals.” “People on the road tell you things they wouldn’t normally tell anyone else ’cause you don’t live in their hometown.”
To the African American street performers he so revered, in segregated New Orleans of the 1960s, the runaway kid who’d shed his birth name – Ronald Clyde Crosby – was known by such nicknames as “Jerr-O” and “Kingston Trio.”
That’s because when he first hit town, clean-cut Walker performed on the street with a baritone Martin ukulele singing songs like “Scotch and Soda” by the Kingston Trio. Not too hip.
Though it was only a brief period in his life, the singer remained nostalgic and fond of New Orleans. “I think, in my mind’s eye, that a good half of the movie could be done in New Orleans,” Walker told Hall.
That’s an extraordinary statement coming from the Austin cosmic cowboy who helped launch the redneck rock and outlaw country music movement of the 1970s.
But New Orleans was where he was formed.
On October 13, 1964, Walker is arrested for the first in New Orleans (a later incident happened in 1965 when he was coming off a Fourth of July weekend of heavy drinking and partying when while walking through the French Quarter on the Monday morning after the holiday, Jerry Jeff was arrested for public drunkenness).
The July 5, 1965 is well documented. Sunrise was about half a hour away. It was still dark.
Page 103 of the arrest ledger indicates it was 5:20 a.m. near the corner of St. Ann and Decatur Streets. The arresting patrolmen were officers Marzilele and Glendi. It was not Walker’s first arrest for drunkenness in New Orleans.
But this particular July morning in 1965 would have been a sight to behold. With his guitar, Walker jumped up onto a small table at Café Du Monde across from Jackson Square and annoyed a woman by serenading her and proclaiming his love for her.
“That was the scene with the girl,” Walker recounted to Hall. “Me standing on the table at the café, getting some people to defend my right to tell her I love her, and all that, then getting carried off to jail.”
Call it obnoxious. Call it immature. Call it boorish. Or romantic. Walker brought that arrest on himself and was out on the street soon afterward. Such was not the case in 1964 — when he met Bojangles in jail.
He’d been picked up in an early morning raid of the French Quarter. By all accounts Walker was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the unpublished manuscript, “Letters From the Road,” Walker walked over to where the arrests were happening because he thought there was a party going on.
But Walker admitted to Hall that being jailed that first time was sobering and a dose of reality. He hinted that he was physically hassled in the cell. Jail records for the day indeed show he was housed with some young toughs. But there was a guardian angel in there, too.
It’s possible that his true identity of the mournful Bojangles is contained in the arrest record for October 12-13, 1964.
In “Letters From the Road,” Walker delivers a vivid and clear description of the man he meets. And he is African American: “His face was deep black, old and clear. His eyes looked at me with kindness,” Walker wrote.
He fleshed out the portrait for Hall. “This little funny kind of character over in the corner, this little pile of clothes and stuff, and that was Bojangles, and he raises up and says, ‘You can sit over here. You won’t be bothered,’” Walker recounted.
“And that’s when we started talking.”
Walker remembered that while in jail the guards had offered sandwiches. He declined, in an effort to appear tough. Bojangles took two, according to Walker, knowing that the young man would get hungry later.
For the first time, a snippet of that jailhouse dialogue: “Figured you’d want it. You’re going to lighten up after a while,” Bojangles told him.
They talked to pass the time. “I just found great fascination in the old people,” Walker said about his conversation with Bojangles.
“We were both in this forced situation, and we’d swap stories and talk, and time will go by a lot faster than if we just sit here and cuss every once in a while. And I had one story, and he had a hundred million of them. So, I kind of just listened.”
What did they talk about? Again, going back to the unpublished “Letters From the Road,” Walker explained. “Story about a girl he loved once. Story about a dog. Story about being in jail. He’d been in the drunk tank many times,” Walker wrote.
“I was charmed by somebody really happy . . . at a very tender point in my life. My friend (Bojangles) had been a street dancer.”
At various times in his life, Walker sometimes said that the older man he met in jail was white. It’s not clear why, though that would help the lyric comport with the history of minstrel shows and blackface. Walker’s Mr. Bojangles “danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs.”
But it appears that by the ’70s, the movie character would be portrayed as Black. Walker was also insistent that a dismissive racist slur alleged to have been made by a record business executive after hearing the song to be included in the movie dialogue: “No one gives a shit about an old drunk (African American) and a dead dog.”
“Tough line,” Walker acknowledged on the tape, unapologetic about his use of the n-word to make his point.
But in fairness, there is also some evidence to suggest that at least one music executive believed the song itself might be racially insensitive at a time in the late ’60s during the Black Power movement and a time of racial unrest.
Bojangles is an amalgam of the “characters that kind of pervaded the whole scene down there” in New Orleans, Walker explained. But in the interview with Douglas Hall, he was now naming names. Over the years, the story changed about where he wrote the song — Houston, Austin, the Big Easy.
It should be noted that digitized audio tapes of performances and song demos from 1964-1967 made in various cities, and archived at The Wittliff Collections, didn’t turn up any early version of “Mr. Bojangles.” Such a recording has never surfaced.
Nor is it clear why its origins were so cloudy, or why Walker often deflected about it and just didn’t want to go there. Barbara Lyons Herman, the muse for “Little Bird” and who had an intense romantic relationship with Walker from 1964-1965, said she never heard an early draft of “Mr. Bojangles” or even knew of the incident in the jail.
There is evidence that Walker was looking to write such a song about the street dancers before he was ever arrested. He was enthralled by them, revered them. He jammed with them, sometimes. The jailed stranger with tales of his dead dog may have merely been the literary vessel, the missing piece of the puzzle, the catalyst for the hit song Walker so desperately wanted. But was Bojangles real?
The street performers certainly were.
Willie Monroe “Polka Dot Slim” Vincent, aka Vince Monroe, (Jerry Jeff remembered him as “Harmonica Slim”) is one inspiration for the Bojangles character. He was an outlandish harmonica player and tap-dancing bluesman. He’d toss his hat at customers for a tip when they made a request, “Cough it up, Jack.”
“I was just wide-eyed as I could be,” Walker said about witnessing Polka Dot Slim in action in New Orleans in those days. He was slender, worn but elegant and sometimes wore a bow tie. It’s easy to imagine such a figure dancing in a jail cell.
French Quarter blues singer Babe Stovall figures, too. Jerry Jeff befriended him and often carried the blues man’s heavy steel resonator guitar. “(It) was a wonderful time, being an apprentice to black musicians,” Walker told researcher Earl Casey.
Stovall had a guitar “finger picking style unlike any of the other New Orleans street singers,” wrote E.L. Borenstein in the liner notes for the album “Babe Stovall,” which he produced for Verve Records in 1964. He was the first to record him.
Borenstein described Stovall as “tall and dignified and relaxed . . . philosophical.” And broke. Could his be “the eyes of age” of Walker’s song?
Barbara Lyons Herman, who knew Stovall well, is convinced that at least one line of the song’s lyric — “I drinks a bit — is positively Babe Stovall. “That’s how he talked,” she said.
Jerry Jeff throws out other names to Hall as he discussed the Bojangles film project.
There was also the tap dancer and spoons player known as Pork Chops and a street performer called Re-Pete, who wore glasses with no lenses. It’s not a stretch to see them as candidates in the search for the real Bojangles. Walker loved them, saw dignity and freedom in them.
“I just think all of these things should be part of his character (in the film),” said Walker, referring to these African American performers he admired and often watched at the patio of the old Carriage House.
In later years, Walker saw a connection between Bojangles and his friend Hondo Crouch, the beloved poet founder of Luckenbach. “They were both alike in the sense that, oh, they had a twinkly kind of way of telling things,” he explained.
There remains a case to be made that Bojangles is maybe one person. On one of the tape recordings, Walker appeared to be saying just that: “It was one of the first times I was ever in New Orleans, that I ran into Bojangles.”
Was this a street performer? Was it the same man in jail in 1964? Had they met before? There is also the question of when exactly Walker penned the tune. The best guess is 1966.
He did not have “Mr. Bojangles” ready for the songbook project with Jay and Anne Edwards, who befriended, recorded and photographed Walker in 1965. A draft of the scrapped songbook does not show it among the folk songs.
“Well, I went back to Houston first, and that’s where I wrote ‘Bojangles,’” Walker told Hall, recalling it was after an incident when his band’s equipment was stolen. (But Walker has also claimed to have written the song in Austin and playing it first for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in hopes that he would record it).
There is also the tantalizing prospect that he recorded a demo in Texas with the help of Gordon Bynum. It has never surfaced.
In a different interview, years later in 1987, with researcher and ghost writer Earl Casey, Walker agreed it was most likely 1966 when he wrote “Mr. Bojangles” on a “big ol’ yellow tablet, little wiring on the top of it.”
“You (could) see crossed out sections,” said Walker, describing his original rough draft. Unfortunately, those lyrics and any edited parts were destroyed in a Nashville flood in 2010.
(Note: In 2018, Walker said that the music for the song was inspired by the Beatles “For No One,” a song with a similar descending bass line written by Paul McCartney on the “Revolver” album released in August 1966).
“When I sing (‘Mr. Bojangles’), I’m that person again. I really enjoy stepping back in that time. I see a naïve-ness. I see a lot of little boy eyes,” Walker said.
When he first hit New Orleans, by way of Tampa, Florida, Walker is so green that it’s hard to imagine he could ever become the naughty Scamp of Texas music lore. He recalled how a bartender once told him and his friends that “we looked like we were too preppy.”
It’s not what French Quarter tourists wanted to see in a street performer. “They come down here to see people who are down and out,” the bartender told Walker. But Jerr-O wasn’t giving up.
“I didn’t come alive till I hit New Orleans with old blues singers and shit,” said Walker, who took the advice and got a work shirt. He picked up other habits.
“Put the big old mason jar out in the middle of the floor. Pint of vodka, pint of gin, bottle of wine, poured it all in a mason jar shit. Sloshed it around, passed it around, picked some blues. Those first years on the road hitchhiking were great. Just always wanted to live around poet and pickers, writers, daydreamers. I became what I became on the road,” Walker added.
It was nothing short of a reinvention – and harbinger.
“About 1965 . . . that part is the most growing period, that’s where I become Jerry Jeff and did everything else. I changed my name many times. I did everything . . . I formed my character,” he said.
In Earl Casey’s papers, Walker revealed that he thought of himself more as an invented character than a musician. One that was invented in New Orleans.
“That whole period – the whole thing exploded right there. That’s where I became Jerry Jeff,” Walker explained.
So, was “Mr. Bojangles” really about a man he met in jail? Maybe not.
“Street singing in New Orleans was the best for me. I always thought there was a movie right out there – a street singer comes in, meets all the black dancers.” “(That’s) where I wrote ‘Mr. Bojangles,’” Walker said in the same interview. He was, of course, talking about the Big Easy.