‘Gypsy Songman’ Jerry Jeff Walker Dies at 78
Jerry Jeff Walker plays a show celebrating the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 50th anniversary in 2015 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. (Photo by Amos Perrine)
Jerry Jeff Walker, one of the most colorful figures in roots music and an inspiration to a whole generation of storyteller/songwriters who came after him, died Friday at the age of 78.
A family member who confirmed the news to Pitchfork said the cause was complications from cancer. Walker was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017: “I got a real bad sore throat and the rest is history,” he told the audience at his annual Texas Bash birthday concert in Austin the following year.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, he spent his early adult years drifting and busking, eventually settling on a new name, Jerry Jeff Walker, and a new home, Austin, Texas.
His best-known song is “Mr. Bojangles, about an itinerant tap dancer he’d met while sobering up in jail. But Walker also made his mark interpreting the songs of others, including Guy Clark’s “LA Freeway” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” His 1973 live album, Viva Terlingua!, cemented his place in the 1970s outlaw country movement, and his sound evolved and found new territory for decades to come.
Singer-songwriter Todd Snider, perhaps Walker’s biggest fan, recorded a whole album of his songs in 2012, and devotes a chapter of his book, I Never Met a Story I didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales, to his hero.
“In some ways,” Snider writes of first seeing Walker onstage at age 19, “I was already what he was. He was singing all this freeloader gypsy shit, and I was a freeloader gypsy. … It seemed to me right then, watching Jerry Jeff, that there were exactly three chords’ worth of difference between a freeloader and a free spirit.”
Jerry Jeff Walker is survived by his wife and manager, Susan, and their son and daughter.
As the news spread, roots musicians and others shared their affection and remembrances on social media. Here are a few of them: