A year ago we made reservations on a place on the beach near Apalachicola, Florida. We arrived Saturday, October 7, amid heat and humidity that left a film of water on everything out of doors. It was almost still. As the evening progressed a breeze picked up that became a sustained wind with gusts that rocked the house. We went to bed exhausted from an eight hour drive that took us the length of Georgia and onto the panhandle of Florida. I love the last part of this drive; after 71 miles of nothing but swampy land and pine trees you come to a “T” intersection and in front of you is the gulf.
So, I woke early, made coffee, and as often happens in the early morning reflected. That reflection somehow took me to Jerry Jeff Walker. Jerry Jeff is a few months older than I, and I made the mistake of looking for one of his songs on youtube and discovered that he is as gray as I am. I want all of the heroes of my youth to be eternally young.
Actually, I got to Jerry Jeff thinking about his most famous song, “Mr. Bojangles”, puzzling out why that song was so popular and why, after all of these years, I find it stays in my hand. (More about that in a bit.)
I wondered whether Jerry Jeff had formal music training. Mr. Walker’s bio is not much help. It mentions that he was not born Jerry Jeff, and his birth name was Crosby. There is no mention of family other than his maternal grandparents who were both musicians that played for square dances in and around Oneata, New York. (Spuare dancing in New York?)
Then, in the way hero tales go, he was grown and in New York checking out the folk scene. From there he went on the hero’s journey, singing and playing his guitar and collecting life stories. Mr. Bojangles came from one of those life experiences. In the late 1960s, while I was in my junior year of medical school, Jerry Jeff was living on the street in New Orleans playing for spare change.
If you’ve ever spent any time in New Orleans you will know that the French Quarter has a lot of people singing and dancing and playing for change. I don’t think it is a path to sustanence, much less a path to riches, but there they are. Periodically, the police round these itinerant entertainers up and escort them to jail, and Jerry Jeff got caught in one of those sweeps. He was charged with public drunkenness and ended up in a cell with a white street dancer who called himself Bojjangles, and that experience was the basis of the song.
Walker is nothing if not a troubadour. During much of his career he has averaged 280 days on the road playing and singing. I was fortunate enough to see him in Memphis at some venue that had a round rotating stage. I guess the roadies set everyting up and Walker just came out, climbed on the stage and started his show. In the middle of his second or third song he stopped and said “this son-of-a-bitch is moving! How fast will it go?” It turned out to be “not very. He took a minute to enjoy the revolving audience and then resumed play. He’s a real entertainer.
Back to Mr. Bojangles. I picked up the guitar and started playing the song thinking about why it sounded sort of syncopated and discovered two things; while it is written in three - waltz time - the lyrics are in four which makes the song – I think, I’m no musician – in twelve. Everything comes out even on the twelfth beat. The effect is that the third beat ends up all over the place. Also, the second twelve has five beats and then a lyric of four and then ends with three beats.
So, the meter catches your ear. I think it is in the key of “C”, but it isn’t a simple I, IV, V chord series. It is more like I, IIIm7/(C), VIm7, I, IV,V, and then IV, IIIm7, III7, VIm, VIm7, II, V. At the end it is back and forth between Vim, IIIm7 ending on the root.
The chords meatch the mood. Major chords seem to be in happier places and minor in sadder places.
The song has complexity in time and chord structure and tells a simple story that is sort of a dancer’s version of the caged bird singing.
Neurophysiologists have begun to look at how art affects the brain. Art and creativity have been largely a scientific mystery; that is how we make art and how we conceive of it have been a mystery. A recent article in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaufman, and others summarized some of the findings of recent studies. The authors used the ballet, “Swan Lake” to illustrate a number of things.
It turns out that we enjoy art a lot more in a crowd. Watching Swan Lake at home on the television is not as satisfying as seeing it at the ballet. Why is that? It turns out we learn how to respond emotionally in groups. We feel good about our laughter when everyone is laughing and our crying when everyone else cries. We applaud with others. We unexpectedly feel good about the fact that Swan Lake is a tragedy. We all feel bad for the White Swan. Some nurturing emotion is triggered and it is as simple as a matter of endorphins pouring out that makes us cry and feel good at the same time.
Researchers have learned that we learn to walk, to run, to dance watching others. We internalize the motions and then unconsciously imitate them. We like it when the music matches the movements. We like leaps and twirls. We don’t like herky-jerky moves and we don’t like it when the music doesn’t match the mood of the movements.
But, even more basic than all of that is that we love a good story. It’s how we learn, and it’s the reason that Icelandic sagas got told around the campfire and not one-on-one.
Mr. Bojangles is a slice of life lesson, I think. Alone, thrown in jail, broke, sobering up, Mr. Bojangles still danced.
I’ve been asked to sing and play in a tribute to Leonard Cohen. Sheesh. I’ve picked “the Window” because the guitar is almost monotonously easy while the lyrics, given the fact that they are Cohen’s poetry, are not. A choir is going to sing “Hallelujah”.
I’m thinking of adding this at the end as “and now folks, for something completely different.”
It would be better to do a Dylan song; as a friend pointed out, a song from another Jewish poet who can’t/couldn’t sing. (I hope you can see my smile.)
Mr. Bojangles has, according to one source, been covered by some sixty musicians ranging from Tom T. Hall to Bob Dylan to Harry Belafonte.
I welcome the thoughts of real musicians on the enduring magic of this song.