Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tap, Bojangles and More

This item is quite lengthy. I was tempted to split it into 2 parts but ‘Some More’ Week has concluded so here it is in full, long weekend reading.

(For overseas readers, Monday is a holiday in Oz in honour of the Queen’s birthday. Her Maj was actually born on 21 April but celebrating her birthday on 10 June enables announcement of twice yearly honours awards, on Australia Day on 26 January and approximately mid year. [Does anyone else think it ironic that one day celebrates independence and the other colonialism?]  In England, the Trooping of the Colour has, since 1748, been used to honour Her Maj’s birthday. The TOTC is when they have a fancy parade from Buck Palace and the Queen inspects the troops. It is held on a Saturday in June because of the likelihood of better weather. The TOTC is also the occasion for Brit Honours announcements).

I have mentioned previously how looking something up on the net sends you off into more and more fascinating side trails so that eventually you have spent a couple of hours off topic.

I stated in the recent post on clogs that English Lancashire clog dancing gave rise to tap dancing. Before the Irish are upset, I will also note that Irish step dancing is also a forebear of tap. 

Whilst reading up on the history of tap dancing I came across the story of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. 

Wondering whether he was the subject of the song Mr Bojangles, I read further. It’s so interesting (to me, at least)that it is posted as this week’s Bytes article, in full.

Tap dance:

During the mid-1800’s, many Irish immigrants moved to America, fleeing the Irish famine and bringing with them their own dance rhythms and steps. Over the next 50 years these styles were adopted and varied by African slaves, resulting in a fusion of cultures that produced jazz, blues and percussive dance. 

Tap came to be incorporated into minstrel shows, originally as a satire on the black dance styles but eventually as a popular dance style in its own right. When the minstrel shows declined tap moved to the popular vaudeville stage. Blacks were not allowed to perform alone, they could only perform as part of a duet with a white performer. 

Bryant's Minstrels
An illustration from the playbill for a minstrel show, highlighting singing and dancing by actors in blackface.

One of the earliest known 'rhythm' dancers was William Henry Lane, also known as 'Master Juba'. By the 1840s his unique rhythmical style of dance was hugely popular, and he was one of the very few black performers who performed solo alongside white dancers, touring saloons and minstrel shows in New York, New England and London. His style of dance was an intricate fusion of African steps, jigs, shuffles and slides, finger snapping and clapping. 

Master Juba

From vaudeville tap also moved to Broadway and into the speakeasy clubs. Many famous bands included tap dances as part of their show. For a while, every large city in the U.S. had amateur street tap performers. At the time, tap dance was also called jazz dance, because jazz was the music with which tap dancers performed.

During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the best tap dancers moved from Vaudeville to cinema and television.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949):

Before television there was going to the movies. Before Michael Jackson, before Gene Kelly, before Fred Astaire, there was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. 

From Feetbeats – American Tap:

In an age where television was unknown, going to the cinema was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Cinema audiences were hungry for light hearted, 'feel good' romantic escapism with lavish sets, glorious costumes, memorable songs and spectacular dance routines. In the 1930s, tap musicals, such as those choreographed by Busby Berkeley, featured hundreds of young women dancing en masse in spectacular formation. Close ups reveal that the skill of the individual dancers may have been somewhat lacking, but the overall effect captivated audiences. 
'Bojangles' Robinson made a screen name for himself appearing alongside child star, Shirley Temple. Racial segregation rules prohibited a black man from appearing on screen dancing with a white female, unless, as in this case, she was a child and he was playing the role of a servant. These prejudices prevented black performers from taking leading roles or even appearing alongside white artists as equals. The first film musical with an all black cast was 'Stormy Weather' (1943), starring Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Lena Horne and Fats Waller. 

Stormy Weather is loosely based on Robinson’s own life.

Born in 1878 in Richmond, Virginia, he was given the nickname “Bojangles” at an early age but claimed to be unaware of its origin. He was busking as a dancer in local beer gardens from the age of 5 and dropped out of school early to pursue dancing, joining a dance troupe at age 8 and touring. Further touring and vaudeville followed, along with nightclub and musical comedy performances. For the next 25 years he was popular on Broadway but did not dance for white audiences until he was aged 50, having devoted his career to the black theatre circuit and having had opportunities limited by racism.

Under the management of Marty Forkins from 1908, he matured and became a solo performer in nightclubs, earning $3,500 per week. 

His stair dance was one of his famous performing trademarks, much like Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, a dance that he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment by dancing up stairs to the King of England who was waiting to grant him an honour.

In 1928 when Robinson was 50 he appeared before his first white audiences when Lew Leslie produced Blackbirds, an all-black revue. As the star performer, Robinson soon captivated white audiences. During the next decade he performed in fourteen motion pictures for RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. His most frequent role was that of an old antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Just Around the Corner (1938).

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with Shirley Temple, stair dance from The Little Colonel (1935)

After his run with motion pictures, Robinson returned to the stage in 1939 at the age of 61 to perform in The Hot Mikado, a jazz rendition of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta performed at the New York World’s Fair. 

The Hot Mikado poster, 1939

Poster 1937

To celebrate that 61st birthday, Robins danced down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street. He continued to perform well into his sixties before he died of a chronic heart condition in 1949. Performers and fans of dance still pay tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a man of professional genius and personal generosity. In 1989 a joint U.S. Senate/ House resolution declared "National Tap Dance Day" to be May 25th, the anniversary of Bill Robinson's birth.

A Bill Robinson moment:

Robinson was once seated in a restaurant when a racist customer objected to his presence. The manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson left. Robinson smiled and asked, "Have you got a ten dollar bill?" Politely asking to borrow the manager's note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, "Here, let's see you pick out the coloured one". The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.

Some video links of Bill “Bojangles” dancing, click on the links to view:

Sand Dance from the film Stormy Weather (1943), at about the 1.56 mark:

Stair Dance with Shirley Temple, form The Little Colonel (1935):

Dancing with Jeni Le Gon; singing with Fats Waller, from the film Hooray For Love (1935):

Mr Bojangles:

Which brings us to the song Mr Bojangles. Does it refer to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson?

Here are the lyrics:

I knew a man,
and he'd dance for you
in worn out shoes,
with silver hair,
a ragged shirt,
and baggy pants.
the old soft shoe.
jump so high,
jump so high,
then he'd lightly touch down.

I met him in a cell
in New Orleans,
I was down and out.
He looked to me to be the very eyes of age
as he spoke right out,
talked of life, talked of life,
laughed, slapped his leg and stepped.

He said the name "Bojangles"
and he danced a lick
across the cell.
grabbed his pants,
a better stance, 
and wow he jumped up high.
clicked his heels.
he let go a laugh,
let go a laugh,
shook back his clothes all around.

Mr. Bojangles.
Mr. Bojangles.
Mr. Bojangles.

he danced with those at minstrel
shows & county fairs,
throughout The South.
He spoke with tears
of fifteen years
of how his dog and him,
had travelled about.
his dog up and died,
he up and died,
after twenty years he still grieves.

He said "I dance
now and every chance at
for drinks and tips.
But most of time
I spend behind these county bars,
cause I drinks a bit."

he shook his head.
and as he shook his head,
I heard someone ask please,

Mr. Bojangles.
Mr. Bojangles.
Mr. Bojangles.

Video links:

The Harry Nilsson version:

Jerry Jeff walker version:

The Song:

Mr Bojangles was written in the mid 1960’s by Jerry Jeff Walker and was included on his 1968 album of the same name. Numerous other artists have recorded covers - Bob Dylan, John Denver, Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond – but the one I like best is Harry Nilsson’s. Beautiful song, although sad, and a beautiful recording of it. Nothing beats Nilsson Schmilsson

From Wikipedia:

Walker has said he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail and that the song does not refer to the famous stage and movie personality Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Walker said while in jail for public intoxication in 1965, he met a homeless white man who called himself "Mr. Bojangles" to conceal his true identity from the police. He 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

From Walker’s book Gypsy Songman:

"One of the guys in the cell jumped up and said, 'Come on, Bojangles. Give us a little dance.' 'Bojangles' wasn't so much a name as a category of itinerant street entertainer known back as far as the previous century. The old man said, 'Yes, Hell yes.' He jumped up, and started clapping a rhythm, and he began to dance. I spent much of that long holiday weekend talking to the old man, hearing about the tough blows life had dealt him, telling him my own dreams." 

Walker also described writing the song after he had moved to Texas:

“. . . it came, just sort of tumbling out, one straight shot down the length of that yellow pad. On a night when the rest of the country was listening to The Beatles, I was writing a 6/8 waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song. In a lot of ways, Mr. Bojangles is a composite. He's a little bit of several people I met for only moments of a passing life. He's all those I met once and will never see again and will never forget."

Two internet views on the song, from the Song Meanings website

This song is really sad. Considering that the title has the word "Bojangles" in it, you'd think it would be funnier. But it's about a hobo whose clothes are ragged, has no money, dances for quarters, whose dog died, who was thrown in jail. In spite of all that, he still can laugh and have a good time. But people don't seem to understand him. They just say "please" and want him to dance for them and do his sad little routine.


I actually see it as an uplifting song. Despite all of his hardships, Mr. Bojangles is loved by those he comes into contact with and has an uncanny ability to brighten everyone's day. He doesn't use society's expectations as a measurement for success, without a care for money or material possessions. All that matters is laughter and friendship. His love for others is highlighted by how he still grieves for his dog 20 years later. He has a big heart. Seems like one of those people who finds the best in everyone. He's what all of us should strive to be.


Statue of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in Robinson Square, Richmond, Virginia

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