Who Was Mr. Bojangles?

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The story of the real Bojangles, Bill Bojangles Robinson, a talented performer and iconic tap dancer.

Was Mr. Bojangles a Real Person?

Mr. Bojangles is a song written by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968. The lyrics of the song  tell a story of a man whom he met in jail in New Orleans. This man was a homeless street performer who identified himself as Mr. Bojangles. He told his story to the other inmates about his life as a dancer in minstrel shows and county fairs. He told of his travels with his dog for 15 years and how he still grieved for his dog and then he danced for them. The song has been performed and recorded by many well known artists including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Chapin and Billy Joel.

I love the Bojangles song but it doesn’t tell the story of the original Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson danced his way into the hearts of an older generation, those growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, who along with their parents watched the movies of Shirley Temple.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born in 1878 and died at the age of 71. He began dancing as a very young child and throughout his youth and adult years he did indeed travel with dance troupes and vaudeville shows and performed regularly in nightclubs as a dancer and musical performer. He is well known for his “stair dance” which he performed with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. He also danced with her in The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner. He was well paid and made and lost a fortune during his lifetime.

In 1932 he starred in a little independent film called Harlem is Heaven about a nightclub owner who is spurned by his lover for another man. This was a film made to play primarily to black audiences and co-starred legendary Eubie Blake and His Orchestra and Jimmy Baskette who is known for his role as Uncle Remus in the Disney production of Song of the South.

Fred Astair, in blackface, paid tribute to the great tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the movie Swing Time. Robinson was an inspiration and influence on the work and style of Fred Astair. Although some take offense at the blackface it was not intended to dishonor but rather to honor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson was one of the truly great performers of his day and had a role in breaking through race barriers in the entertainment industry.

So when you hear the song Mr. Bojangles you might want to remember the real legend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

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Judith Barton

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