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A Belated ‘So Long’ to the Gypsy Songman

Somehow I missed it, but Ronald Clyde Crosby died a year ago in October. Had I known, I would have blogged about him then.

Name not ringing any bells? That’s because Crosby — born March 16, 1942, died Oct. 23, 2020 — took the stage name Jerry Ferris when he started his performing career in the mid-1960s. Then changed it to Jeff Walker. Then melded the two monikers into one, Jerry Jeff Walker, which he made his legal name.

Walker’s best-known work probably is a song he wrote that was a big hit for somebody else. And if all he ever did was pen “Mr. Bojangles” — a No. 9 classic for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — that would be an accomplishment. But the Gypsy Songman, as he was also known, wrote many other songs, and also covered notable compositions by others.

Crosby/Ferris/Walker got his start musically as a teenager in a local rock band, then after high school served an ill-fated stint (he was discharged after going AWOL) in the National Guard. After roaming southern and eastern states busking for a living, he joined the Greenwich Village folk music scene for a time.

Walker’s folk career took a detour into a folk/jazz/psychedelic rock band called Circus Maximus. (They originally named themselves the Lost Sea Dreamers, but the initials of that name were considered problematic.)

Circus Maximus recorded two albums, one of which included “Wind,” a cut that got some airtime on FM progressive stations and still can he heard on satellite radio. (I listen to it, and for the life of me I can’t hear Jerry Jeff in the mix.) But he and co-founder Bob Bruno parted ways over their musical influences and interests.

Walker went back to being a solo act, and recorded his first on-his-own album, Mr. Bojangles, with its unforgettable title tune, in 1968. He then settled in Austin, Texas, and became associated with the Outlaw Country movement that gin-blossomed in the 1970s — to the extent that he is mentioned in Waylon Jennings’ benchmark single, “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” a country and western No. 1 and a No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Although he may have been hangin’ with Waylon and Willie and the Outlaw Country boys, Walker might better be described as an Americana artist. His breakthrough single — which was nowhere near as successful as NGDB’s cover, charting only at No. 77 — being the prime example.

“Mr. Bojangles” is based on a real-life experience of Walker’s: a stay in a New Orleans “drunk tank” jail cell where one of the prisoners is a vagrant tap-dancer who performs for his cell mates. But he also talks about his life on the road: “He danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs/Throughout the south.”

His companion on that road was a canine, and the lyric will yank at your heart strings whatever you otherwise feel about our four-legged friends. “He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him/Traveled about/The dog up and died/He up and died/After twenty years he still grieves.”

(NGDB picked up on that theme on their version of “Mr. Bojangles,” the original pressing of the single’s B side consisting of an interview with “Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy,” also taken from the eponymous album. But when the single became a hit, the 45 was reissued with the song only on the flip side.)

Walker penned dozens of songs, although none had quite the impact of “Bojangles.” Some of that likely was the result of his relaxed — sometimes it seemed lackadaisical — approach to his art, embodied in the song “Getting’ By.” That was the opening cut from his 1973 album Viva Terlingua, which is the only JJW LP I own.

Viva also includes a couple other cuts that would rank second tier to “Bojangles,” but still pretty good: “Backslider’s Wine” and “Wheel.” And several great covers of other writers’ work: Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” (which was one of the reasons I bought the album), “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” by Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.”

But I also have on my DVR an Austin City Limits episode that is one-half JJW, and includes some of the aforementioned songs, as well as his cover of another great Guy Clark song, “L.A. Freeway,” and some other numbers I hadn’t heard before. The real find for me in the latter category is a song named “Stoney,” which I would rate close to “Bojangles.”

Like “Bojangles,” “Stoney” is based in real life, the subject of the song being H.R. Stoneback, an associate of Walker’s from his busking-and-bumming days. Stoney was a great storyteller, but in the end, Walker realizes that his friend was just making it up.

“Yeah, Stoney was a liar (a bullshitter!) ain’t no doubt about it./ It was just the way he told things, and you never want to doubt him.” So in the end, he asked to hear the tall tales again. ““Hey, did I ever tell you the time I married my cousin up in Las Vegas?’Yeah, Stoney. Tell it again, will you?”

That ACL show, which ran in February and is titled “Texas Icons,” is billed as a tribute to Walker and Billy Joe Shaver, who died five days after JJW. It’s an interesting juxtaposition: Walker, the New York Yankee who reinvented himself as Southern songman; Shaver, an honest-to-goodness redneck writer, who penned and sang songs like “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)” and “Devil Made Me Do It the First Time”.

Walker, sometimes referred to as the “Jimmy Buffett of Texas,” surfed the wavefront between country, folk and rock. Shaver, a poor Texas boy who grew up picking cotton, and strummed his guitar with two half-fingers shortened by a sawmill accident, was thoroughly country and western, but a great songwriter, too. American music will miss them both.

I guess a belated farewell is appropriate for Walker, whose laissez faire approach to life is embodied in “Getting’ By”: “Income tax is overdue, I think she is too/Been busted and I'll probably get busted some more/But I'll catch it all later, can't let ’em stop me now/I've been down this road once or twice before.”