"Mr. Bojangles," Jerry Jeff Walker's most famous song, is about a man waking up in a New Orleans jail in 1968 so "down and out" that a fellow inmate tries to cheer him up, by tap dancing.
The old street performer tells his tattered story, in descending melodic lines that jump up and turn around, right before they end. It's not just what he says, but how he says it, and he's ready to show any audience that he isn't finished quite yet. Jerry Jeff Walker, who will appear at the Neighborhood Theatre on July 17, evidently learned a lot from this guy. Also from the likes of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, in early '70s Austin, before they all hit the road again, under a new Outlaw banner.
Which was very cute 'n' colorful, but, in Jerry Jeff's case, especially, such a banner could be a dark and dusty backdrop for the dancer's jumps and turns.
Anthems like "Pissin' in the Wind" and "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" are still as potent as they always were ironic. But now the former (red-nosed) "Jacky Jack Snowflake" dances on the grave of his bad(der) self, where once he was closer to dancing into it.
Jerry Jeff's recent collection, Best of the Rest (Tried & True), can seem too mellow, but Jeff's voice is well-preserved (smoke-cured) and even the lesser songs keep an eye on time's tricky gifts. My favorite, "Keep Texas Beautiful," is a celebration in a minor key: There's a sense of the cost, of what has been and is still there to be lost, if we can't "keep it free." As even George W. and the Dixie Chicks, hearing this, might agree. And Mr. Bojangles too.
Jerry Jeff Walker and his Gonzo Compadres play the Neighborhood Theatre on Monday, July 17, at 8pm; no opening act. All tickets are $30. See www.neighborhoodtheatre.com for more info.