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06/02/2008 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bo Diddley Was a Gunslinger

Bo Diddley is dead. He was a living gateway between times and places who brought African rhythms and African-American chants into the Top Forty. Together with Chuck Berry, he built rock and roll. He also built his own guitars, from spare parts (his first one was made from a cigar box.) Then he played them through overloaded amplifiers, transmitting ancient heartbeats on waves of tube-driven electricity.

Not bad for a country boy, as they used to say down South.

His lyrics could be plain and direct - "I'm looking for a woman." Or they could be old Southern vaudeville routines set to a backbeat: "I'm from South America." "No, you ain't." "Yes, I am." "What part?" "South Texas."

Or they could be cryptic invocations of symbols from illegal sorcery:

"I walked 47 miles of barbwire, got a cobra snake for necktie, got a brand new house by the roadside made outta rattlesnake hide/Got a tombstone chimney high as a tower, made outta human skulls ..."

That last tune ends with a derangement of the senses worthy of Rimbaud: "The night was black and the sky was blue/around the alley an ice wagon flew/heard a bump, somebody screamed/Everybody here oughtta heard what I seen."

A lot of his songs were about himself: "Bo Diddley." "Hey, Bo Diddley." "Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger." How American can you get? Inventing and naming yourself is part of the legacy of a pioneer nation, a land filled with exiles and refugees. He was following in the tradition of no less a figure than Walt Whitman: "I celebrate myself and sing myself." And he made the poet's words come true through the unifying force of his music: "Every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you."

Plus, his records had a good beat and were easy to dance to. (Too much lit-crit rock and roll writing is a bad thing, as folks learned in the 1970's. When rock and roll made its way onto college curricula, a little part of me died.)

He's best known for the "Bo Diddley rhythm," the juba beat associated with hambone games (and with the Johnny Otis tune "Willie and the Hand Jive"). You don't hear that rhythm in too many songs nowadays. Its last appearance on the pop charts might have been Bow Wow Wow's version of "I Want Candy" by the Strangeloves, released in the 1980's. (If I'm wrong, somebody will correct me.)

The first time I heard that rhythm my heart stopped. It hasn't beat the same way since.

Some bandmates and I went to see Bo play in New York in a tiny club around 1971 or so. There weren't many people there: us, some regulars at the bar, a New York Doll or two, and John Lennon. We all had one thing in common: We wanted to hear Bo play (except maybe for the guys at the bar). And he wanted to play for us. And by the way, he rocked. He could've been playing one of those package tours in 1959 with all the superstars, for all the heart he put into that tiny show.

Even his name was a gateway to other times. The "diddly bow" was a crude instrument of African origin, popular in the South. (How crude? Sometimes it was just a single string nailed to a wall or a post.) Bo's real name was Ellis McDaniel. He was, like the song said, a 'gunslinger.' He was 79 years old.

RJ Eskow blogs:

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