Acoustic Classic: Learn to Play Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”

When outlaw country singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker died last October at 78, he left behind a rich body of work, comprising more than 30 albums. But the only song of his to become a major hit was “Mr. Bojangles,” which he first recorded for the Atco label in 1968. Inspired by a destitute elderly street performer that Walker met in a New Orleans drunk tank, the tune became a pop standard, recorded by John Denver, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston, and others, not to mention a staple of Sammy Davis Jr.’s stage shows. 

This arrangement is based on Walker’s 1968 single (as opposed to the longer album version) in terms of structure, with chord voicings gleaned from a live solo performance on YouTube. Walker played the song with a capo at the second fret, causing it to sound in the key of D major. The intro marks the first appearance of a chord progression with a neatly descending bass line—C–C/B–Am–C/G—that recurs in the first part of each verse as well as the end of the chorus. Try the figure shown in the notation, which is transcribed from the single. Add a bit of emphasis to the first beat of each measure, and strum in a down-up motion on the other beats—an accompaniment pattern that will service the entire song. 


Note that each verse ends with four measures of a G chord. You could stay on the basic open G shape for the duration, but instead I’d recommend playing a G–G6–G7–G6 progression, as shown in the notation. Forming the basic G chord with your second (or third) finger on string 6 and your fourth on string 1 will free your other fingers to play the sixth (second-fret E) and flatted seventh (third-fret F)—a good move to have up your sleeve for adding interest to a harmonically static passage.

Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 54.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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