“I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
Silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants
The old soft shoe
He jumped so high. He jumped so high
Then he’d lightly touch down,”
Sometimes you can recall in great detail where you were when something unforgettable happened. I have distinct memories of hearing the “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band”s version of “Mr. Bojangles.: for the first time. I was just a child, but I was moved by the song almost to tears. It wasn’t the line about how the old man grieves for his dog, although it’s a beautiful line. Really, what got me was in my mind’s eye I could see “Mr. Bojangles” a lonely, lost soul in the drunk tank in New Orleans, talking about his life and how he loved to dance. He was someone who was marginalized but still had much to give. To this day, when it comes on the radio if I can, I stop what I’m doing for a second and let the song wash over me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned there really was “Mr. Bojangles.”
His name was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. He was considered one of the most gifted dancers that ever to put on taps. He was an innovator, the highest paid Black performer in America in his day, and someone who singlehandedly tore down many of the color barriers in entertainment. But was he the man in the song? How could someone who so well paid, be down and out in a jail cell? If he wasn’t the man described in the song who was? Let’s find out.
Bill Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25th, 1877. Both his parent were in poor health and died before Robinson’s sixth birthday. He moved in with his grandmother, but as she was destitute and unable to care for him. So by age five, Robinson would hang out in front of the music halls and dance to the music playing inside for tips. One of the theater owners saw him and hired him as a “pickaninnie” for a local minstrel show. TheMinstrel Shows were musical revues that featured white performers in BlackFace makeup. The pickaninnies were Black children who would stand on the side of the stage and would dance and tell jokes in between acts to allow the performers time for a costume change. It is at this time he was given the name “Bojangles.” Robinson said it was due to his happy-go-lucky personality.
At age 13 he ran away from home and went to Washington D.C. where he met Al Jolson, (they were both teenagers and got together performing a song and dance act. Jolson would sing, Robinson dance) He would stay with the Jolsen family until he found work as another pickaninnie in a traveling show. He and Jolsen would remain lifelong friends.
In his early twenties, Robinson would travel to New York City to attempt to break into Vaudeville. He entered a dance contest and won, beating Harry Swinton who was a huge Broadway Star and considered the best dancer of his day. Word spread of Robinson’s performance and he began getting offers. Robinson was a tireless performer and often worked multiple shows a night.
Robinson’s style of dancing was unique. Unlike most tap dancers of his day, Robinson rarely danced flat footed but on his toes. His technique and natural rhythm were impossible to duplicate (and many tried). He had a routine where he would dance up and down stairs. The bit became his trademark and he even tried unsuccessfully to put a patent on his moves. Which was probably moot because according to experts in the art of dance, no one could copy it even if they tried. Robinson is also said to be the creator of the word “copacetic” (meaning all is well) he often used the word in his shows. And became a catchphrase for him. Robinson also held the World Record for running backward (100 yards in 13 seconds) The record would stand for over 50 years.
Aside from his singularity as a dancer, Robinson broke many color barriers. He made over two million dollars in his lifetime (about 25 million in today’s money) and was the highest paid Black performer of any genre in his day. He was the first African-American to have his own one-man Broadway Show. He also refused to wear Blackface and threatened to walk if they made him. They relented, and he became the first Black performer on Broadway not to have to wear the makeup.
You may ask why would African-American performers have to wear Blackface, to begin with? Well, sometimes Theater owners would sneak Blacks on to the stage if they were talented. By making them wear Blackface makeup, they would blend in with the whites who were doing the same. Robinson contended they were paying to see him, a black man, so they should get what they paid for. A gutsy move at the time. He also would often demand he perform only for mixed audiences. Though often the theater owners would balk at the idea.
In the 1930s Robinson moved to Hollywood and would appear in 18 movies over his film career. The one he is best remembered for was “The Little Colonel” in which he appeared with Shirley Temple. In the film, they have a dance sequence together. This was the first interracial dance routine ever captured in a movie. The two performers really connected and were friends for the rest of his life.
Robinson never forgot his abject childhood and was known for his generosity. He often did charities and benefit performances. And gave away much of his fortune. He was successful despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. There is a story where Robinson was dining in a fine restaurant when a white patron complained to the manager. The manager asked Robinson to leave, and he said he would but only if the manager would help him in an experiment. The manager agreed, and Robinson asked the manager to give him a 10.00 bill, the manager did, and Bill Robinson pulled out a wad of 10.00 bills from his pocket and mixed it up with the others. He told the manager “If you can tell me which one is the colored 10.00 bill, I will go.” The manager allowed him to stay.
Robinson died on November 25th, 1949 at the age of 72. His death was ruled a heart attack. Sadly despite making millions, Robinson died penniless. Several bad marriages, bad investments, and his generous nature and eaten away his fortune. But he left the world rich in accolades and honored as one of the greatest dancers of his time.
So was he the guy in the song “Mr. Bojangles”? No. According to the song’s writer Jerry Jeff Walker, the song is a true story about a time he spent in New Orleans drunk tank and meeting a street performer who went by the name “Mr. Bojangles”. Walker claims the guy told him he used the name so the cops won’t know his true identity. “Mr. Bojangles” was an older man who did travel around with his dog, And that the song is all based on fact, just not the more famous Bojangles.
But I am glad I researched this. Bill Robinson was a remarkable man, who had a kind spirit, and broke down a lot of unnecessary color-barriers. Invented the word “Copacetic’ (which I have actually used from time to time.), held a peculiar world record and had a dance technique that was so innovative, to this day no one has copied it. Not too bad. Even if he never had a song written about him, he more than made up for it.