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Arts & Culture

Texas State Honors Legendary Texas Musician

A new exhibit pulls back the curtain on a well-known Texan’s artistic career, and his wanderings as a young performer.


But Hector Saldaña with the Witliff Collection at Texas State University said Texas icon Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t actually a Texan.

“He's from upstate New York. He was a high school sports stud. He was an absolute marvel on the basketball court,” he said.

IF YOU GO What: Jerry Jeff Walker exhibit Where: Wittliff Collections, Texas State University When: 8:30 - 4:30 M-F; 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sat.; & noon - 5 p.m. Sun. Cost:  free

The gravelly voice, guitar playing Walker didn't even first reach for guitar — or, for that matter, begin with country music.

Credit Jerry Jeff Walker
Jerry Jeff in 1948

"When Jerry Jeff Walker hit the road for the very first time, it was with a little satchel of notes and doodles, and a Martin baritone ukulele. That was in 1962 and ‘63," Saldaña said.

Walker sought his muse and developed his voice by hitchhiking everywhere, taking it all in and writing songs about what he found.

“A young man, very impressionable, under the spell of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan,” he said.

Given Walker's long career of singing about all things Texas, it's surprising to hear he targeted very different themes as a young man.

“Jerry Jeff Walker was very attuned to the civil rights movement going on,” Saldaña said. “We have uncovered and transcribed at least three different songs where he is dealing with the plight of the African American and dealing with the inequality in America, and songs that address segregation.”

Credit Melinda Wickman
"Ridin' High" album cover

Saldaña has gone through a lot of Walker's keepsakes and spent time with him putting the exhibition together.

“I never knew that he was a street singer. He was dead broke for about five or six years, hitchhiking everywhere, staying in flop houses or with temporary girlfriends,” he said.

Walker is most known for a song he wrote about his experience in a New Orleans drunk tank.

"On July 5, 1965, Jerry Jeff Walker, coming off a drunk Fourth of July weekend, was arrested while he was sort of obnoxiously serenading a young woman. He was thrown into the drunk tank and that is where he met the drifter known as Bojangles," Saldaña said.

Credit Jerry Jeff Walker
Jerry Jeff Walker during his troubadour phase.

The song “Bojangles” put Walker on the map, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version was a major hit. As the ‘70s dawned, Walker began to settle down, moving to Austin permanently. By 1973, he had recorded his hit “Viva Terlingua” album live in Luckenbach. Saldaña said the Walker archives run deep, which is part of the pleasure of researching them.

"It's sort of a never-ending quest for understanding about where the music comes from, and what motivates the artist," he said.

Music, writings, pictures, and even his Martin ukulele is on display at the Wittliff Collections, at Texas State University at the Alkek Library.

MORE | Listen to one of the earliest known recordings of Jerry Jeff Walker

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org