“Why don’t you get a job?” Some fraternity boys once asked Jerry Jeff Walker. Well, he has one: he’s everyone’s favorite gypsy songman.
WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION OF A FEW early serial killers, Jerry Jeff Walker was one of the first people in America to pioneer and popularize the three-word name. I’ve often maintained that if Susan Walker, Jerry Jeff’s wife/manager (emphasis on slash), had married me instead of him, I’d be the president of the United States and he would be sleeping under a bridge. While this may not be entirely true, it is accurate to say that Jerry Jeff would no doubt be very happy sleeping under a bridge. Especially if you let him have his guitar.
Jerry Jeff is not only a Texas music icon, he’s something even more important to me: a friend. When I needed help in my 1986 campaign for justice of the peace in Kerrville, Jerry Jeff was there. When the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch held its first “bonefit,” in 1999, Jerry Jeff was our headliner. I’ve called upon Jerry Jeff so often, in fact, that Susan once asked him, “Doesn’t Kinky know any other celebrities?” I do, but few of them are as generous with their time. That’s why I was happy to comply several years ago when he asked me to give him a blurb for his autobiography, Gypsy Songman. Now that I’m writing this column and digging deeper into Jerry Jeff’s life, I find myself in that most ironic of karmic circumstances: having to actually read a book I’ve given a blurb for. And you know something? It’s pretty damn good.
Way back when doctors drove Buicks, Jerry Jeff rode his thumb out of his hometown in upstate New York, stopped by Key West long enough to invent Jimmy Buffett, then drifted over to New Orleans, where he sang for pennies on street corners. Perhaps he was curious to discover, in the words of Bob Dylan, “Who’s gonna throw that minstrel boy a coin?” Jerry Jeff remembers a time when a group of fraternity boys about his own age came by and started getting on his case. “Why don’t you get a job?” one of them said. “You can’t just wander around with that old guitar forever.” “Watch me,” said Jerry Jeff.
In the mid-sixties, before he was nothing, as we used to say in Nashville, Jerry Jeff was singing in Austin. Today we would probably call him a homeless person with a guitar. During this period he wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” a song that now resides comfortably among the most recorded songs of all time. Looking back, it is hard to believe that a record executive once passed on the song, remarking at the time, “Nobody wants to hear a song about an old drunk nigger and a dead dog.”
“Mr. Bojangles was actually white,” Jerry Jeff told me recently. “If he’d been black, I never would’ve met him. The prison was segregated.”
“It’s a perfect song,” I said. “But you keep changing the melody and fooling with the phrasing. Why?”
“To discourage people from singing along.”
I asked Jerry Jeff to tell me about writing “Mr. Bojangles.” This is what he said: “I’d been reading a lot of Dylan Thomas, and I was really into the concept of internal rhyme. I just had my guitar, a yellow pad, and the memories of guys I’d met in drunk tanks and on the street—one gentle old man in particular. The rest of the country was listening to the Beatles, and I was writing a six-eight waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song.
“During the time I was writing ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ I used to go down to the Austin city pound about every two weeks and adopt a dog. I didn’t really live anywhere myself, so the dog would often stay with me awhile and then it would run away. Maybe find somebody else. At least I felt I was giving him a second chance.”
Jerry Jeff got a second chance himself when he married Susan, in 1974. She is largely credited with turning his life around and turning his career into a financial pleasure. Not only does he have houses in Austin, New Orleans, and Belize, but also, quite possibly for the first time in a lifetime of rambling, a sense of home. Jerry Jeff and Susan have two children, Jessie Jane and Django, who is starting to make a name for himself in the music world. Django has an album out and a hit song, “Texas on My Mind,” that was recorded by Pat Green and Cory Morrow. The Walkers credit Django’s attending Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts with honing his skills as a songwriter and performer. They are currently in the final planning stages of opening a similar school in Austin. It will be, Susan says, a nonprofit organization of international scope, teaching music as well as the music business to anyone with the talent to gain admission.
The school could someday provide young people from around the world with the kind of education, direction, and support that Jerry Jeff himself never had. His education and inspiration were often provided by the real-life characters he met on the street and on the road; he returned the favor by immortalizing many of them in his songs. Through the music of Jerry Jeff Walker, people like Hondo Crouch, Charlie Dunn, and the ubiquitous Mr. Bojangles seem to live forever. This is important, because people today don’t often get the chance to meet such men in the halls and the malls of our modern-day world.
At a television taping in November, Jerry Jeff performed a few of these classics and then some songs by other songwriters. He played “The Cape,” a song by Guy Clark about a kid who thinks he can fly. I’ve always found this song a trifle treacly, but that night it brought a tear to my eye. Then he played Ian Tyson’s “Navajo Rug,” which brought another tear, and Steve Fromholtz’s “Singin’ the Dinosaur Blues,” which really started the waterworks. When “Redneck Mother,” by Ray Wylie Hubbard, also put a tear in my eye, I realized that I was fairly heavily monstered.
Later, out on the street, I suddenly felt stone-cold sober. The ability to deliver another man’s song faithfully is a rare enough talent, but Jerry Jeff Walker does not merely make a song his own. His magic is that he gives it to you.