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Take Two

Mr Bojangles

Bill Bojangles Robinson.jpg

I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
With silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants
The old soft shoe

He jumped so high
Jumped so high
Then he'd lightly touch down

Mr. Bojangles

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia in 1878. From dancing for pennies in the street at the age of five he became the most highly paid Black entertainer in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. His influence on dance was substantial. According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, "Robinson's contribution to tap dance is exact and specific. He brought it on its toes, dancing upright and swinging," adding a "hitherto-unknown lightness and presence."

Luther and his brother Bill were raised by their grandmother, a former slave, after their parents died in 1884.  "Robinson claimed that he was christened Luther, a name that he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother William that they should exchange names, and they eventually did." His brother subsequently adopted the name of Percy and achieved recognition as a musician under that name.

At twelve Bill ran away to Washington DC where he performed in various shows and at one point teamed up with a young Al Jolson who would sing while Bill danced. You can read Bill's fascinating story from vaudeville to film here. One of his memorable roles in film came with his doing his 'stair dance' in the movie The Little Colonel with child star Shirley Temple:

The song Mr Bojangles was written by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968. Over the years since it has become associated with Bill Robinson, but actually according to Walker, a street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail who called himself Bo Jangles was the subject of the song. In the song, the street performer is a heavy drinker and has a dog that died; Walker also noted that the street-performer Bo Jangles was white. By Bill Robinson's own account and those of his friends, he neither smoked nor drank (although he was a frequent and avid gambler), and he never had a dog.


Perhaps the best know performance of the song is by Sammy Davis Jr. It was an ideal vehicle for demonstrating Sammy's many talents. Apparently Sammy credited Bill Robinson with influencing his career.

I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
Down and out
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
As he spoke right out

He talked of life
He laughed, slapped his leg instead

He said the name Bojangles and he danced a lick
Across the cell

We danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs
Throughout the south
We spoke in tears of fifteen years
How his dog and him
They travelled about

His dog up and died

And so to the first of our two 'takes' on the song. This is a different vocal approach by Kareen Guiock-Thuram. Kareen, an actress and singer is based in France where she grew up before going to college in Guadeloupe and then back to Paris. The track is on Kereen's album Nina, her tribute to Nina Simone, available to download here

Our second 'take' is an instrumental version by Australian guitarists Tommy and Phil Emmanuel. (There is another YouTube video of them playing Mr Bojangles with harmonica player Pat Bergason but the sound favours the harmonica at the expense of the guitars). From a rock guitarist to a solo performer, Tommy Emmanuel's jazz credentials can be seen here in his duet on Honeysuckle Rose with guitarist Martin Taylor. You can read more about Tommy here. Tommy's brother Phil sadly died suddenly from an asthma attack in New South Wales in 2018.

They said I dance now at every chance and honky tonks
For drinks and tips
But most the time I spend behind these county bars
'Cause I drinks a bit

He shook his head and as he shook his head
I heard someone ask please

Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles

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