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Puff Piece: Bo Diddley

Bo Diddley has died.

I think a lot of people think of Bo Diddley as a joke, which makes sense, as he was a comic figure. He played a square guitar, for crying out loud. Lots of musicians, lots of performers, lots of people critical in the development of art forms have been comic figures. That doesn’t make them unimportant. The art can still be good.
For me, it doesn’t get much better than that early Bo Diddley, the Chess Records stuff. If I get a choice between listening to Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley, I’ll take Bo Diddley. If I get a choice between listening to Howlin’ Wolf or Bo Diddley, I’ll take Bo Diddley. If I get a choice between listening to B.B. King or Bo Diddley, I’ll take Bo Diddley. If I get a choice between listening to Eric Clapton or Bo Diddley, I’ll take Bo Diddley. If I get a choice between listening to The Rolling Stones or Bo Diddley, I’ll take Bo Diddley.

But that’s a matter of taste, and people, being different one to another, have different tastes, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun. What is not a matter of taste is how influential his Bo Diddley persona remains, both directly and indirectly. The character of the boisterous, comically arrogant and egotistical (black) man is common, and his technique of making risibly overstated boasts about his sexual prowess and rebelliousness should be instantly recognizable to anyone with a level of cultural literacy above zero, that is, around the level of Your Humble Blogger.

I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
I use a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, child,
And tell me, who do you love?

By the way, if anybody wearing a cobra-snake necktie asks you do take a walk with him and tell him who you love, do not walk with this man. This has been your good advice for the day.

Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin’ in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I’m a man,
Made twenty-one,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.

The lyrics, of course, don’t do justice to the sound. You may see obituaries talking about the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm, or bomp-chicka-bomp-chicka-bomp-bomp rhythm. Writing about music is, notoriously, like dancing about architecture; if you’re inspired to do it, terrific, but don’t expect the audience to learn a lot. I’ll say that once I’d heard that rhythm, the one he didn’t invent but which he popularized, I started hearing in a lot of rock-and-roll, and more to the point, a lot of good rock-and-roll.

I saw Bo Diddley perform in 1994, I think, at the reception of a non-profit/NGO conference. He would have been 66 years old, I guess, or thereabouts. I think the median age of the people in the room was about the same. A handful of young ’uns like myself and my Best Reader, a handful of extremely elderly people, but the bulk of them were in their late fifties, sixties and early seventies. Bo Diddley rocked. He also insisted on being paid in cash, which was a pain in the ass of the conference organizers, but I have come to understand why the man didn’t trust people. Not that the organization’s check would have bounced, but he was sure the cash wouldn’t bounce.

A last note: some of us, I’m afraid, when we sing our children to sleep, can’t help singing it like this:

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word
Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
if that mockingbird don’t sing
Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
if that diamond ring don’t shine
Papa’s gonna take it to a private eye
If that private eye can’t see
dontcha take no ring from me

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I think of his "Mannish Boy" (as Ellas McDaniel) and shudder when I compare it to the Yardbirds "I'm A Man." The original is a slow, grinding, sexy masterpiece. The British cover sounds like it's sung by a guy barely old enough to shave (and will have finished making love and caught a cab home before his girlfriend even realizes he's been with her). Sometimes you can improve on the original, but not in this case. Bo Diddley's influence is the equal of Chuck Berry's and Little Richard's.

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