The Long, Lonesome Roads of Jerry Jeff WalkerBreaking News
tags: obituaries, music, country music, Folk Music, songwriters
The maverick country-folk singer Jerry Jeff Walker was born in 1942 in Oneonta, a small city in upstate New York, near the northernmost boundary of Appalachia. His parents, both local square-dance champions, gave Walker the slightly less swashbuckling name of Ronald Clyde Crosby. He changed it in the early nineteen-sixties, shortly after going awol from the National Guard and embarking upon a hitchhiking odyssey around America; Walker settled in Greenwich Village, with hopes of becoming a folksinger. It’s possible that there was something about the tumult of the era that nurtured or encouraged this sort of brazen, don’t-look-back reinvention—but one gets the sense that Walker was simply born with an outlaw heart. He died last Friday, in Austin, Texas, of complications from throat cancer, at the age of seventy-eight.
Walker recorded more than thirty LPs in the course of his career, but is best known for “Mr. Bojangles,” a song about a silver-haired, down-and-out showman Walker met while cooling off in a drunk tank in New Orleans. Though the lyrics are mostly celebratory—Mr. Bojangles laughs, clicks his shoes, “danced a lick across the cell”—the song is still suffused with a kind of gnawing melancholy; we are meant to understand that there is something spiritually crushing about the arc of Bojangles’s life. “Mr. Bojangles” was a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in 1971, and a beloved staple of Sammy Davis, Jr.,’s set (“I cannot do a show without including this song,” Davis said, in 1985); it was recorded by Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Whitney Houston, John Denver, and Neil Diamond. Walker’s own recording of the song, from 1968, was powerful enough to secure him a record deal, and, in the early seventies, he signed and moved to Austin.
Texas suited Walker. His songs were looser and more rambunctious than what many of his folk-revival counterparts were doing in New York, and he seemed more at ease in honky-tonks of ill repute than he did in the hipster cafés of the West Village. Walker was a ferocious drinker—indefatigable, by all accounts, in his desire for oblivion. “Greased by drugs and alcohol, I was also raising the pursuit of wildness and weirdness to a fine art,” he wrote in his memoir, “Gypsy Songman.” “I didn’t just burn the candle at both ends, I was also finding new ends to light.”
Walker started hanging around the Armadillo World Headquarters, an abandoned armory that became a music hall and a beer garden in downtown Austin, and he got to know Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kinky Friedman, and Guy Clark—rebellious, self-styled country songwriters working outside the confines of the Nashville machine. Walker’s recording of Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” which Walker included on his self-titled 1972 album, is extraordinary. It might be the best song I’ve ever heard about taking off and not looking back:
Pack up all your dishes
Make note of all good wishes
Say goodbye to the landlord for me
Sons of bitches always bore me
Throw out those L.A. papers
Moldy box of vanilla wafers
Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street
Walker’s voice is rough, straining, and gorgeous. “L.A. Freeway” is about a fantasy of freedom (“Down the road in a cloud of smoke / For some land that I ain’t bought, bought, bought”), but it is also about actual freedom—the heady and thrilling realization that you have had enough of something. If you, like me, have never felt entirely certain about anything, hearing Walker announce “We’ve got something to believe in / Now don’t ya think it’s time we’re leavin’?” can feel like a kind of divine mandate to follow your heart at all costs.
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