06 June 2008
It would seem unfair to suggest the usual If It Weren’t For Bo Diddley, There Would Be No… list. Probably, though, most of us own bigger Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, the Who (or even the Clash, Eric Burden & the Animals, the Cramps, and the John Spencer Blues Explosion) collections than we do Bo Diddley albums. Fair enough. But while many of us might not own a proper Bo Diddley album or compilation we have certainly heard the influence of the man. In fact, it could be argued the Bo Diddley sound is as much a part of our Rock & Roll consciousness as anything the above musicians have pounded into our heads.
More importantly, I think, are the social, racial, and economic barriers that artists like Bo Diddley shatter as they lower their heads and plow through the too-numerous-to-count blockades that try to break their momentum. These people allow no man or woman to impede their vision and in doing so-—or not doing so-—contribute much more than music to the once and forever fertile soil of the American cultural landscape.
With the addition of Utah Phillips’s passing—-also a pioneer, though from a different side of the coin-—I was reminded of a short passage from Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Marcus references a 1995 interview with the African American jazz theorist, biographer, and literary critic Albert Murray. The context of the quote was the Folk Revival of the early 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, and Dock Boggs--the banjo player from Virginia; the message is transferable and equally poignant.
That is the credo, and no matter how many are at any time forbidden to utter it, American women, American blacks, and on, and on, sooner or later it will shape them all, and all will say it out loud, as a blessing or curse: the presumption of self-invention is the presumption of beginning with nothing, which is the presumption of equality. As a credo it is an argument you have with yourself far more than with others, to convince yourself, since no one would publicly profess disbelief: “We’s all borned equal. We all supposed to have the same chance, under our Constitution” (an excerpted Dock Boggs quote). “Negroes were not less American than anybody else,” the omni-American critic Albert Murray said to interviewer Tony Scherman in 1995. “They expected the same thing.” “But there was—-is—-a huge contradiction between the ideology of equality and the reality,” Scherman said. “That’s not as important as you might think,” Murray said. “We got all those Negroes segregated? That’s unimportant, compared to the fact that they shouldn’t be. It’s not the fact that they’re segregated but the fact that if they were segregated in another society, it wouldn’t even matter. Can’t you see that?”
The old America of the founders, of the Puritan, the pioneer, and the lawgiver, was always present, Murray said-—it was all about “free enterprise. Don’t reduce it to economics; I’m talking about free endeavor: an experimental attitude, and openness to improvisation. The disposition to approach life as a frontiersman, you see, so piety does not hold you back. You can’t be overrespectful of established forms; you’re trying to get through the wilderness of Kentucky”—-and the point was not “that if something doesn’t work for everybody, it doesn’t work. The important thing is that the official promise existed. ‘All men are created equal.’ Now you had something to appeal to.”
Maybe it has something to do with living away from my home country for several years now; maybe it’s only because I’m slightly prone to sentimentality anyway, but reflecting on such musical heavyweights like Bo Diddley helps to reaffirm my faith in the great experiment that is the United States. The “official promise” offers more than equality under the law; it creates a breeding ground, an incubator, for expressive traditions. Though Bo Diddley didn’t invent Rock & Roll, the blues, and R&B, he certainly borrowed from those and other styles to create his own musical worldview. More importantly, he channeled the rich and varied traditions borne from the Southern slave plantations in the form of the chugging rhythms of field songs and work hollers as well as the fire and brimstone energy found in fundamentalist Baptist churches.
In this sense, the larger-than-life music of Bo Diddley is much more of a protest along the lines of Utah Phillips than it at first appears. Through song, charity, and organizing, Utah Phillips helped support the voices of the industrial laborer, the immigrant, the displaced, and the homeless. Through his electrified, exaggerated style Bo Diddley’s protest was, perhaps, even more subversive than the card-carrying, direct action Wobblies. When Bo Diddley wailed on his guitar he wailed (read: raged) on behalf of his people and a history of struggle, violence, and, yes, segregation.
He will never be known as a protest singer, of course, but his show-no-mercy take-no-prisoners style--and general badassness--certainly equipped many musical generations to follow with power and determination. And his authority, his "experimental attitude," was permitted (though not without its own struggles) under the singular notion of a national constitution. So while mothers certainly swept their daughters off the street when he came through town; and old folks probably plugged their ears and shook their heads; our country’s credo offered Bo Diddley a voice, and he used it, and we’re all better off for it.
A couple benefactors of a couple tradition bearers:
Townes Van Zandt was no stranger to the blues and the talking blues in particular. Here's an acoustic, country-rock version of Bo Diddley's song from the 1973 album Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. As a bonus, listen for Townes's joke at the end of the song. Who Do You Love.mp3
Buck Ramsey was known as the "spiritual leader of the cowboy poetry movement." His poem "Anthem" is regarded as one of the high points of the art form and is worth investigating in and of itself. Here is his version of Utah Phillips's Goodnight-Loving Trail, recorded at the 1997 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. The Goodnight Loving Trail.mp3