Other People’s Songs: Mr Bojangles

This series looks at recordings Bob Dylan has made of songs he did not write.  A list of previous episodes in the series can be found at the end.  As ever in the series, Aaron selects the songs and makes his own comments, and then Tony replies.

by Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

Aaron: “Mr. Bojangles” is a song written by country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker for his 1968 album of the same title.

Wikipedia tells us: “Walker was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail. While in jail for public intoxication in 1965, he met a homeless man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” to conceal his true identity from the police. Mr. Bojangles had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about all manner of things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, and Mr. Bojangles obliged with a tap dance.”

Tony: I’m very grateful to you Aaron; I’d didn’t know the origin of all this, even if it might be apocryphal.   I find in listening to this I’m much more taken by the music than the lyric although actually, I don’t care much for the way that the arranger tries to add something extra to the chorus.

Musically it is very adventurous for a pop song – the line before the chorus modulates twice, which is probably not unique for a piece of pop but is certainly unusual.   In fact I had to listen to it twice (which I know is cheating) I was so surprised at what the music does.  The piece is in C but it flirts with being in A minor and G, which is what gives the unusual effect in the “jumped so high” line.

Aaron: In the first few years after release it was covered by the likes of Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Lulu, John Denver, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., and most successfully by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who’s version hit #9 in the US charts.

Tony: I don’t like the emphasis on the drum to give us the 1-2-3 effect of a fast waltz; musically it is in 6/8 not 3/4 – and yes there is huge difference (which I won’t bore everyone with now).  They’ve done this I’m sure to emphasise the notion of the dancer, which for me isn’t what the “jumped so high” and “clicked his heels” is all about.   It’s beautifully sung, but the arranger should be severely punished for what he/she has done to such a lovely melody and chord sequence.

Aaron: Bob’s version appeared on his 1973 studio album, Dylan. Wikipedia describes it as “a much loved version of the song”.

Tony: Bob took it at a much more stately pace and we back in six beats to a bar.  And although there is the female chorus with its “oooo” behind Bob, the essence of the song is retained and I get a real sense Bob is not only paying tribute to a famous song, but he utterly understands its essence – as of course we would fully expect.   Not too sure about the half shouting out of the title at the end of each verse, and for once I wonder if Bob wasn’t influenced by the arranger or producer rather than his own feeling for the song.  I guess he is emphasising the anguish of the old man, but for me it is far, far, far too false and very un-Bob.

Aaron: After Robbie Williams included it on his “Swing When You’re Winning” hit album it became something of a swing standard – I debated about including this on a Bob Dylan website, but here we are!

Tony:  It is always your choice Aaron as to what to put in these articles, but I found this something of a relief, hearing a sparse accompaniment at the start here after Bob’s version. Indeed I do think Robbie Williams has a real understanding of what the song is about.   Now I know this is a bit of an odd thing to say, after all there are not many lyrics and how could one not understand, but arrangers do tend to get carried away by the music and forget the meaning expressed in the lyrics, on occason.

And yet even here we get into the bizarre – the full orchestration followed by a bit of imitation scat… it is almost as if there was a feeling that everyone else has recorded the song and so one can’t just simply perform it.  What hasn’t been done?  Oh I know…

And why do arrangers so often want whistling on their productions?

Aaron: Eventually Steve Earle got his hands on it in 2022 and give us this fine version.

Tony: Of course I have no idea how many readers actually do work their way through all the examples selected, and my ramblings thereafter, although where I have been able to have conversations it appears that a lot of people who are kind enough to follow the series do read in full, even if they disagree.

But to you, dear reader, I’m glad you’ve made it to here and that you will be playing this in full.   It is the best version of the song you are likely to find, not least because it uses some of the tricks that producers and arrangers feel the need to include, but for once keeps them under control.   I thought the strings were particularly effective as a way of accompanying the two-part harmonies of the voice toward the end.   And although the percussion does give us the regular 1-2-3 we still get the feel that this is 6/8 and not a ludicrously fast waltz.

And above all this version keeps everything under control and let’s the song be itself.  And that more than anything is what needs to happen.  Full marks to Steve Earle and co for resisting everyone else’s extras, and just doing it.  Lovely end too.

Previously in this series…

  1. Other people’s songs. How Dylan covers the work of other composers
  2. Other People’s songs: Bob and others perform “Froggie went a courtin”
  3. Other people’s songs: They killed him
  4. Other people’s songs: Frankie & Albert
  5. Other people’s songs: Tomorrow Night where the music is always everything
  6. Other people’s songs: from Stack a Lee to Stagger Lee and Hugh Laurie
  7. Other people’s songs: Love Henry
  8. Other people’s songs: Rank Stranger To Me
  9. Other people’s songs: Man of Constant Sorrow
  10. Other people’s songs: Satisfied Mind
  11. Other people’s songs: See that my grave is kept clean
  12. Other people’s songs: Precious moments and some extras
  13. Other people’s songs: You go to my head
  14. Other people’s songs: What’ll I do?
  15. Other people’s songs: Copper Kettle
  16. Other people’s songs: Belle Isle
  17. Other people’s songs: Fixing to Die
  18. Other people’s songs: When did you leave heaven?
  19. Other people’s songs: Sally Sue Brown
  20. Other people’s songs: Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
  21. Other people’s songs: Step it up and Go
  22. Other people’s songs: Canadee-I-O
  23. Other people’s songs: Arthur McBride
  24. Other people’s songs: Little Sadie
  25. Other people’s songs: Blue Moon, and North London Forever
  26. Other people’s songs: Hard times come again no more
  27. Other people’s songs: You’re no good
  28. Other people’s songs: Lone Pilgrim (and more Crooked Still)
  29. Other people’s songs: Blood in my eyes
  30. Other people’s songs: I forgot more than you’ll ever know
  31.  Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  32. Other people’s songs: Highway 51
  33. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  34. Other people’s songs: Let’s stick (or maybe work) together.
  35. Other people’s songs: Jim Jones
  36. Other people’s songs: Highway 51 Blues
  37. Other people’s songs: Freight Train Blues
  38. Other People’s Songs: The Little Drummer Boy
  39. Other People’s Songs: Must be Santa
  40. Other People’s songs: The Christmas Song
  41. Other People’s songs: Corina Corina

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