#216: Bo Diddley, "Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley" (1986)

I come to rock ‘n’ roll for the peacocks. But it ain’t just the strut across the stage that does it for me. Any fool can do that much. Many cultures recognize that the peafowl display goes beyond braggadocio. That’s why images of these beautiful birds find their way into the iconography of religions all over the world. That’s why ancient Greeks considered them immortal beings. The immortal strut, that’s what brings me back to the godfathers of rock, especially Bo Diddley. If we’re talking about godfathers, let me go ahead and declare: Bo Diddley is the Godfather of Strut.

I mean, it takes a whole lot of strut to name yourself Bo Diddley then come up with a signature beat, so now you have 60 years of people talking about and playing the Bo Diddley beat. Add in that he invented his own type of guitar. His self-titled 1957 album, the first part of what ended up on the RS 500 as a double album (along with Go Bo Diddley), has three songs that include his name in their titles. I didn’t tally how many other songs on this double-album feature him mentioning himself in third-person. I could go track by track extolling this album, but those are just the feathers.

“I’m a Man,” which is reprised on Go Bo Diddley as “Say Man,” shows us bravado that both is the substance and contains the substance. There’s the surface level brag about sexual prowess, but I want you to imagine something more significant with me. Imagine a black man in the 1950s singing “I’m a man / I spell M-A-N, man.” You know what, imagine the stir if a black man sang that lyric today. We still live in a world where declaring your own intrinsic value requires a damn fine tuft of plumage and a strong soul. It’s a straightforward lyric, but the full measure of righteous pride is right there.

Another feather worth looking at more closely is his best known song, “Who Do You Love?” Even though this song didn’t make the charts when he originally released it, it’s floated through our popular music consciousness. Dozens of artists have recorded cover versions, but none of these, even renditions that migrate the song to a different genre, leaves Bo behind. His strut comes on through, but thank G-d strut like Bo Diddley had is transitive. It’s an anointing. Listening to this album makes me realize it’s available for all of us, not as something to steal like the surface musical elements that record labels literally stole from Bo and gave to pretty white boys, but something to inhabit and participate in, something deeper, something more important, something indestructible. Bo Diddley wants to know “Who Do You Love?” Tell the voice on the record player (or Spotify or whatever) that you’re ready to take the mantle of loving yourself.

That’s what I’m trying to learn, and maybe I make a little progress each time I listen to this album. I’m no Bo Diddley. I am over here checking out my feathers in the mirror, though. Here’s a little bit about one of my feathers: a few years ago, my wife did some genealogical research and found out that I’m not German but part-Jewish. The German narrative was some whitewashing that came alongside the second generation of my family to live in the United States, changing our name from Weisz to Weiss. With the resurgence (or just continuation?) of white nationalism, maybe this isn’t the best political season for this discovery. People have been making jokes about my schnoz since I was in elementary school, so discovery is too strong of description. This parenthetical isn’t about identity politics, but isn’t what is so often derisively referred to as identity politics just declaring how the feathers you wear affect your lived experience? The first conversation I had after the 2016 election started with the other person snidely saying, “Don’t you look like a smart Jew?” I said, “Well, I am a smart Jew.” No matter what your feathers are, you will end up in someone’s spotlight.

There’s been some speculation that Bo Diddley got his stage name from being told he wasn’t worth diddly squat. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the idea of him taking what was meant to bring him down and turning it into the cornerstone on which this album is built. You can hear in how boldly the music is played that this album is a response to something going on deep in his soul, even if that isn’t the source of his stage name. The combination of the lyrics, which on their own might just be boastful, the music, which on its own might just be good blues with a new beat, and the way he brings it all together adds up and turns Bo Diddley into that rock ‘n’ roll peacock I was looking for. “Hold on to what you got but don’t let go / We’ve changed the tune and start singing a song” almost reads like Diddley’s thesis for the album and reminds me of the Psalmist being inspired to sing new song. It’s right here, y’all. Strut.

—Randall Weiss