(Above) Jerry Jeff Walker performing his song “Talkin’ New Orleans Destruction Blues” at a New Orleans coffeehouse in the summer of 1964 — back when was still working under the alias Jerry Ferris. 

By Hector Saldaña

When it comes to Jerry Jeff Walker, separating the truth from the apocryphal isn’t easy.

As the Texas Music Curator at the Wittliff Collections, I knew that going in when I began planning our spring exhibit about Walker, ¡Viva Jerry Jeff! The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon.

In Texas, the pioneering cosmic cowboy is a god. In my mind, he is like the weathered titan from Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. But how does one begin to present Walker as the “Sam the Lion” of a genre that sprung redneck rock, outlaw country, Americana, red dirt and bro country?

It would mean threading a precise needle. The display would have to offer something new to hardcore fans yet be relevant to a young generation; provide new insights and critical reassessment; and give Jerry Jeff and his wife and manager, Susan Walker, something to smile and maybe chuckle about.

I had confidence in our archivist and fellow curators to guide me through the massive archival materials. But I had a gut feeling there could be a couple of holy grails out there, some surprises still to be had in Walker’s story. That drove me at the beginning.

After scouring Walker’s own book, Gypsy Songman, and newspaper articles nearly a half century old, I was intrigued at the possibility of finding the original handwritten lyric sheets to “Mr. Bojangles.” Not only because the exhibit would also mark the 50th anniversary of Walker’s own first official recording of the signature song, but because I wanted to see the so-called lost verse that he didn’t sing.

Walker wrote the song in Austin in late 1966 on a yellow legal pad. Could it still exist?

I was also fascinated with Walker’s formative years as a street singer in New Orleans in the early 1960s. I wanted to find people who knew him then.

That quest led me to Earl Casey, a former CNN news producer and executive, and chief researcher for Walker’s Gypsy Songman.

I’ll just call him my guardian angel.

The first thing he did was to send me rare photographs of the musician, as well as some of Walker’s notes, scrapbooks, poetry and sketches. He guided me along the search.

Casey had a hunch that retired Nashville music journalist Gerry Wood might have the original draft of “Mr. Bojangles.”

There were weeks of dead ends. Finally, and much to my dismay, I learned that Wood’s home had been flooded in May 2010 (the 1,000-year flood which devastated Nashville and the region). Jerry Jeff’s original “Mr. Bojangles” had been a casualty.

I would, however, hit the jackpot as I dug into Walker’s days in New Orleans. Casey put me on the path to meeting a married couple, Jay and Anne Edwards, who’d befriended the singer and recorded and photographed him.

It would take several weeks to schedule a meeting and a drive through two hailstorms to reach Baton Rouge, where the Edwards now live, but it was worth the effort. Because not only did they remember Jerry Jeff, they’d held on to a treasure trove of recording tapes, photographs and sheet music. And all of those materials — including Jay Edwards’ field tape recorder — are now part of the ¡Viva Jerry Jeff! exhibition at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, which opened Feb. 5 and will runs through July 8.

Jerry Jeff Walker during a visit to his exhibit at the Wittliff Collections, talking to Texas Music Curator Hector Saldana about his salad days singing folk songs in New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Willenborg, courtesy the Wittliff Collections)

Jerry Jeff Walker during a visit to his exhibit at the Wittliff Collections, talking to Texas music curator Hector Saldana about his salad days singing folk songs in New Orleans. (Photo by Mark Willenborg, courtesy the Wittliff Collections)

The restoration of those Walker recordings dating back to 1964 represents The Wittliff Collections’ first major foray into music digitization. It took weeks to restore them before I could listen to the tapes, but they go a long way in fleshing out the complicated gonzo legend. The New Orleans coffeehouse performances from the summer of 1964 and song demos recorded in late 1965 shed new light on the artist during the civil rights era, before he became the Jerry Jeff we thought we knew.

Some who have visited the exhibit are still surprised to learn that Walker isn’t from Texas. He was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in small-town Oneonta, New York on March 16, 1942.

That’s not the revelation here — though the biography is straight out of central casting. A rebellious, good-looking ukulele-playing, folk-song loving kid and high school sports star graduates, joins the New York Army National Guard only to go AWOL, becomes a hitchhiking street singer living under an alias for years, joins and quits a psychedelic acid rock band, then writes a timeless song about being jailed with a wise old drifter in New Orleans — a song that gives him the break he needs to take over the Austin music scene a few years later.

Jay and Anne Edwards met Walker in the New Orleans French Quarter when he was using the alias Jerry Ferris. They saw his growth first-hand through ’65, and the recordings reveal an artist immersed in the talkin’ blues style of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the young Bob Dylan.

Anne Edwards made notes about the singer-songwriter, describing him as “a young man in Levi’s, boots, a Western hat (Texas style).”

He was good. “His pleasantly nasal voice was a cut above the others and his pickin’ more than adequate,” she wrote. “He’d sing in the clubs and we’d pass him later on a street corner, singing for handouts.”

Walker was at the beginning of his “itinerant and footloose” period, as he described it in his liner notes for the 1969 album Driftin’ Way of Life. The notes address the six tough years of being a broke drifter-singer, a time of chameleon-like changes.

One of the 14 songs on the New Orleans tapes is “Ramblin’, Scramblin.” Five years later, the song appears on Driftin’ Way of Life. Some of the 1965 demos which would make it onto the same album are “Shell Game,” “Let It Ride,” “Gertrude” and “No Roots in Ramblin’.”

Anonother of the original songs from the 1964 tape is “Lonely Walk Through Sorrow,” which contains the telling lyric, “from an early start, broke an old man’s heart.”

Themes are typically about driftin’.

The reel from December 15, 1965 includes songs that would make it onto Walker’s 1968 debut, Mr. Bojangles. The tracks include “Little Bird” (at the time, titled “Tears or Is It Rain?”) and “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Makes Me).” The essential Jerry Jeff Walker, as he now called himself, is beginning to emerge.

“Little Bird” is especially notable for its intimate folk delivery. The vulnerability is akin to Mary Travers at her best.

The 1964 and 1965 recordings show a young, impressionable artist keenly aware of civil rights issues, inequality and the plight of African Americans in segregated America. It bolsters the notes, doodles and youthful ramblings in a scrapbook that Walker began in his early 20s, which also indicate he was sensitive to the conditions of black America.

“The Quorum Raid” from August 1964 details an incident from the previous month when 73 people were jailed at the coffeehouse at 611 Esplanade in New Orleans. The Quorum was targeted because it was a gathering place for free-thinking artists and actors and didn’t hold to segregation norms. Walker, a regular, wasn’t there the night of the raid, but he wrote about the ugly acts of “the white citizens council” in spot-on detail in the unpublished gem. The melody is beautiful, too.

Then there is the unpublished “I Look For That Day, Today,” which appears six songs into the 1965 reel. Musically, it recalls Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with hints of the country tinge Walker would become known for.

Where is that mornin’ I feel inside?
That dawn of truth I look to with pride
The day when all men will look in their hearts
And see there the hopes of men from afar
And the one who is locked out because of his skin
Will find the door open and proudly walk in
And those who use hate behind guns in the war
Will know a world of peace never seen before
And I look for that morning today
I guess that it’s still on the way. 

The lyrics, sadly, still hold true.

When Jerry Jeff and his wife visited the exhibition on Valentine’s Day, the ancient melody came back to him as he read the lyrics, and he sang aloud the melody to the chorus.

Until then, I’ll keep bummin’
Because a better day is a-comin’
And I hope as I go
that tomorrow won’t be as slow.

Standing in the gallery, Walker then explained the beauty of the talkin’ blues for a formative artist.

“They were easy to do,” Walker said. “And I was absorbing everything.”

For example, his 1964 original “Talkin’ New Orleans Destruction Blues” outlines his earliest days in 1963 New Orleans in a nifty, unpublished Guthrie-like song about urban renewal. You can hear the recording in the SoundCloud link above.

Both reels of tape have numerous examples of Walker talking, whether onstage or off, explaining what a song is about or its specific tuning and chords. At one point, during “The Quorum Raid,” he stops and sheepishly says he has to turn the lyric page in a songbook.

The 1965 reel was made some six months after his July 5, 1965 arrest for public drunkenness in New Orleans, which landed him in a jail cell with the gentle white drifter Bojangles. But there is no evidence of the song on the restored reel.

The Wittliff Collections is currently restoring five additional reels from the Walker archives covering 1966-1967 for clues to Walker’s signature song. The hope is that an early version of  “Mr. Bojangles” exists on tape.

In his 1999 memoir, Gypsy Songman, Walker wrote about the influence of poet Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” and author Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight on the song’s internal rhyme and his mindset. But the songwriter offered new insights during his recent visit to the Wittliff Collections, adding clarity to the origins of his timeless 6/8-time creation. For one, it could not have been written before August 1966. That’s because the basic song structure of “Mr. Bojangles,” according to Walker, comes from Paul McCartney’s heartbreaking ballad “For No One.” That song was released in late summer 1966.on the the Beatles’ Revolver album.

Of course, hundreds of songs have been written with variations of the C-Em-Am-F-G chord progression. Melodically, the songs are quite different, and McCartney chose a harpsichord to underpin the sad portrait of a love affair that’s over. Its specificity is devastating.

Walker’s is equally intimate, but there is a sense of hope and joy to his character sketch, one which is filled with dignity and humanity. It also defined his own persona, aligning himself with the archetypes of folk music.

For McCartney, “For No One” is simply one of his many effortless musical faces he used in the Beatles. For Walker, “Bojangles” was the defining moment – before he defined Texas music five years later.

There’s also another big difference between the two masterful songs: “For No One” was only for Jane Asher. McCartney’s ex. “Mr. Bojangles” is universal in that Bojangles can be about anyone.

So, is Jerry Jeff Walker the “Sam the Lion” of outlaw country? I’ll simply use a line of dialogue from McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show to make the point: “He was quite a fella who had his own way of doing things. That’s for sure.”

Hector Saldaña is the curator of the Texas Music Collection at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. ¡Viva Jerry Jeff! The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon runs through July 8. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Saturdays 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sundays noon-5 p.m. For directions and more information, visit www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu

RELATED: The Wittliff Collections celebrates the wild life and times of Jerry Jeff Walker