Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson - His Nickname & His Stair Dance

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post focuses on the meaning of the nickname "Bojangles", the nickname of the dancer/actor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. This post also features two examples of the stair tap dance that Bojangles invented. In addition, this post includes my transcription of and comments about the rhyme that Bojangles recited while performing his stair dance in the 1935 American movie The Littlest Colonel.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"African-American writer Donald Bogle called him “the quintessential Tom” because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in film. But in real life [Bill "Bojangles" Robinson] was the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885. Young Bill was reared by his grandmother, Bedilia Robinson, who had been a slave. In Richmond, he got the nickname "Bojangles" from "jangler," meaning contentious, and he invented the phrase "Everything's Copasetic," meaning tip-top...

His act was an amalgam of little steps and moves he had taken from others, then stitched together into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. He worked his magic by rehearsing and performing the act so much that he could do it in his sleep, and then “selling it” to an audience through the sheer force of his infectious personality. He would intersperse his routines with little jokes and remarks, such as the famous “Everything’s copasetic!” In 1918, Robinson introduced what was to become his signature bit, “the stair dance.”...
"Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film...

Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on, Robinson's public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. Consequently, blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for "squabbler"...
[Italics added to highlight those words.]

Example #1: bill "bojangles" robinson step dance

7roach, Uploaded on Sep 1, 2007

Example #2: Little Colonel Bojangles Dance

mysticmoon1984, Uploaded on Feb 28, 2010
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson teaches Shirley Temple his signature stair dance in this scene from The Little Colonel [1935]
Here's the words to the rhyme that Bill "Bojangles"' character recites in that scene:
"I went to the market
for to get some meat.
And the meat so tough
and I couldn’t get none.*
I paid five dollars
for a great big hog.
And the hog so fat
and I couldn’t get back."

[transcription by Azizi Powell from the video. I'm unsure about the word "none", Corrections welcome.]

This rhyme is a version of an adaptation of the "I went to the river/but I couldn't get across" floating lines that are found in a number of African American rhymes/songs. The structure of those rhymes follows a pattern I refer to as "defective exchanges". In that pattern, something that is defective is exchanged for something else which is also found to be defective and so on. Two rhymes with that patten are included in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise & Otherwise "Crossing The River" (page 6) and "Gray & Black Horses" (page 45). Here's an excerpt from that second poem:
I went down to de woods an' I couldn' go 'cross,
So I paid five dollars fer an ole gray hoss.
De hoss wouldn' pull, so I sōl' 'im fer a bull.
De bull wouldn' holler, so I sōl' 'im fer a dollar.
De dollar wouldn' pass, so I throwed it in de grass.
Den de grass wouldn' grow. Heigho! Heigho!

African American novelist Richard Wright included a rhyme with this same defective exchange pattern in his 1938 story "Big Boy Leaves Home," from Uncle Tom's Children
Bye 'n' bye, Ah wanna piece of pie.
Pie's too sweet. Ah wanna piece of meat.
Meat's too red. Ah wanna piece of bread.
Bread's too brown. Ah wanna go t' town.
Town's too far. Ah wanna ketch a car.
Car's too fas'. Ah fall 'n' break mah ass.
Ah'll understan' it better bye 'n' bye.

Incidentally, that same story includes a version of the children's insult rhyme "You're Mama Don't Wear No Drawers". The link to a pancocojams post about that rhyme is included in the Related Links section below.

Multiple contemporary versions of "Ooh Aah I Wanna Piece Of Pie" can be found on this page of my Cocojams cultural website: "Take A Peach Take A Plum" is another family of children's playground rhymes that is very closely related to "Ooh Aah I Wanna A Piece Of Pie". Multiple contemporary examples of those rhymes are also found on that same Cocojams page.

Sammy Davis [sings] "Mr Bojangles"
Note this information from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson's Wikipedia page which is cited above:
"While Jerry Jeff Walker's 1968 folk song "Mr. Bojangles" is often thought to be about Robinson, it was actually inspired by Walker's encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail."
Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather [includes a routine in which the Nicolas Brothers tap dance on stairs.] Yo Mama Don't Wear No Drawers

Thanks to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson for his dancing legacy. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post, and to the uploaders of these videos.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome


  1. In case anyone besides me wondered if the name "Django" (the title of the 1966 Italian film and a part of the title of the 2012 American movie "Django Unchained") has the same etymology as the nickname "Bojangles", it doesn’t.

    Here's a quote from a "New Yorker Magazine" review of a book about the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt:

    "'Django' is a Romany word—the first-person singular of the verb meaning “to awake.” It was the Gypsy name that [jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt]’s mother gave him when he was born, in January of 1910, in a caravan on the road in Belgium. Romany families in those days seem to have given their children both a public name—the new baby’s was Jean—and a private name..." "Gypsy: The life of Django Reinhardt" by Adam Gopnik

    Here's information about the meaning of the nickname "Bojangles":
    "In Richmond, he got the nickname "Bojangles" from "jangler," meaning contentious..."

    Note this entry from
    jangle (v.) c.1300, jangeln, "to talk excessively, chatter, talk idly," from Old French jangler "to chatter, gossip, bawl, argue noisily" (12c.), perhaps from Frankish *jangelon "to jeer" or some other Germanic source (cf. Middle Dutch jangelen "to whine"). Meaning "make harsh noise" is first recorded late 15c. Related: Jangled; jangling.
    Also, from
    "To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for 'squabbler'."

    Here are definitions for "squabble" from
    intr.v. squab•bled, squab•bling, squab•bles
    To engage in a disagreeable argument, usually over a trivial matter; wrangle. See Synonyms at argue.
    A noisy quarrel, usually about a trivial matter.

    [my comment to be continued below]

    1. It's very likely that the "bo" in "Bojangles" came from the word "beau".

      beau [bəʊ]
      n pl beaux [bəʊ bəʊz], beaus [bəʊz]
      1. a lover, sweetheart, or escort of a girl or woman
      2. a man who is greatly concerned with his clothes and appearance; dandy
      [from French, from Old French biau, from Latin bellus handsome, charming]

      Incidentally, the contemporary African American English word "boo" also comes from the same French word "Beau".

      Depending on its usage, "boo" means "your Boyfriend or Girlfriend" [with the capitalization signifying a special relationship and not just other friends who are male or female]


      "a term of affection for a [grown person] similar to 'baby'."

      Similar definitions can be found at

      "Beau" is pronounced like "bow"--as in "bow and arrow" as is "Bo" in the nickname "Bojangles". In contrast, the vernacular word "boo" rhymes with "you" and is pronounced the same as the word that ghosts supposedly say to scare people.

      Given the above information (and guesses) in this post and the post above it, the nickname "Bojangles" can be said to mean "an argumentative lover man who considers himself -and may be considered by others to be- a sharp looker and a sharp dresser."