Thursday, January 01, 2009

Douglas Hofstadter on the Bo Diddley cover problem

As I said I would do in my seminal post on the Bo Diddley cover problem, I emailed Douglas Hofstadter (Pulitzer prize-winning author of Godel, Escher, Bach and director of the Center for Research on Concepts and Cognition at Indiana University) for his opinion on the matter. With his permission, here is our correspondence. First, my query:
From: Zachary Drake
To: Douglas Hofstadter
Subject: Should singers covering Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley" change the lyric to their own name?

Dear Professor Hofstadter,

I was writing a blog post on the following question: Should singers covering Bo Diddley's song "Bo Diddley" change instances of "Bo Diddley" in the lyrics to their own name? I know from Le Ton Beau de Marot that you are not a fan of rock music, but the issues involved in addressing this question reminded me quite strongly of themes in your work.

I see this question as somewhat analogous to the problem of how to translate "This sentence, written in English, would be difficult to translate into French" into French, with "English" and "French" mapping on to "Bo Diddley" and {the name of the cover artist} respectively. So I was wondering if you or any of your associates in the Fluid Analogies Research Group have written specifically on this issue or on a similar problem in the author-performer space. I've done a quick Google search and perusal of your website and haven't found anything that specifically addresses this question.

I would welcome any comments or contributions from you or an appropriate member of your group. Thank you for your time and consideration. I am a great admirer of your work; Godel, Escher, Bach made me so happy to have a brain well-trained enough to appreciate it.

-Zachary Drake

Here is the post in full:[I appended a copy of this post]
And Hofstadter's reply:
From: Douglas Hofstadter
To: Zachary Drake
Subject: full resolution of the mystery

Dear Mister Diddley,

I was terribly sorry to hear that you were
ailing and died last year (I hope it wasn't too
painful and drawn-out), but it was a
counterbalancing relief to know that you managed
to resurrect yourself as the Yaling Zachary
Drake. As such, you sound rejuvenated and filled
with fresh new ideas. This is exactly as it
should be, and I wish you a rich and creative
long life in your brand-new incarnation.
I understand that you wrote a song about
your previous incarnation, using your old name,
and that you now want to sing it in your new
incarnation. That does pose a problem, because
few people will connect your two names. What to
Well, if I were you, Bo, I would simply use
my own name (and you know what THAT is!) --
that's the choice that makes by far the most
sense. Isn't that what you would do if you were
me (although of course that's hardly likely). So
bo for it!
As for the title of the song on the album,
well of course that has to be the same as the
name of the singer/composer -- that's bovious!
However, as for all those dizzying details
of delicate dactyls and such, I must admit, I
don't know diddly. Sheet music poses yet another
intricate problem, of course, but I'll let you
think that one through yourself.
If you ever have more questions concerning
tricky self-referential translation problems, I'd
suggest you contact my Australian colleague
Egbert B. Gebstadter, who has written a whole
book about such things, entitled "The Graced Tone
of Clément: À la louange de la mélodie des mots"
(published in Cahors by Éditions Noitide). Plus
-- and this ought to really please you -- Egbert
is completely and totally smitten with rock
music. It's the only kind of music he ever
listens to. In fact, he has a radio show on
which he only airs rock -- plus a few puns, now
and then, although in my opinion, he's not
terribly good at them.
I hope this little note helps clear up the
mystery you raised, Bo. Glad to have been of
some help. I send you all my best wishes for the
New Year.

Duck Hofstadter.


Blogger Sarah said...

Definitely you win many geek points for initiating such a cool exchange with Douglas Hofstadter.

9:02 PM, January 01, 2009  
Anonymous bill in minneapolis said...

Cool. However, Bo Diddley was born Ellas Otha Bates and did not take on the name of Bo Diddley until later - and possibly after he wrote the song 'Bo Diddley.'

So apparently, anyone who sings the song does become Bo Diddley as he did.

But I think you should have told 'Duck' Hofstadter that your real name is 'caz ekard.'

9:25 PM, January 01, 2009  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Ah yes, I was aware of this wrinkle on the issue (that Bo Diddley might have become Bo Diddley after writing that song). But he certainly wrote other "Bo Diddley" songs when his identity was already established. So the problem in its original form would apply to those songs.

But I think the problem with the song "Bo Diddley" remains: I bet the song "Bo Diddley" didn't have the same impact when Ellas McDaniel (born Ellas Otha Bates) performed it! Indeed, I'm almost certain it didn't. Because the song didn't become a big hit and enormous rock-n-roll influence as Ellas McDaniel's "Bo Diddley". Neither do we remember it as a Buddy Holly song (even though a Buddy Holly had a hit with it). It is only as "Bo Diddley's Bo Diddley" did it achieve its iconic status. I don't think this is a coincidence.

Whether Bo Diddley named the song after himself or himself after the song does not diminish Bo Diddley's self-referential Godelian achievement. Indeed, I think it's cooler if he did name himself after the song: perhaps the radical solution I jokingly suggested to the "Bo Diddley" cover problem (that artists covering "Bo Diddley" should change their names to Bo Diddley) was the one that Bo Diddley himself used! Of course, since it was Bo Diddley's own song, it wasn't a "cover" problem per se, but presumably a problem about how to make the song have the most impact.

The Wikipedia entry says that there are multiple conflicting stories about the origin of the name Bo Diddley. One story is that both the song and the author/performer were named Bo Diddley at the same time by Leonard Chess, Bo Diddley's producer. In this case, perhaps the self-reference that became one of Bo Diddley's leitmotifs was, ironically, not his own idea. Whoever first came up with it, he certainly took it and made it his own. (Which is of course, what the best "covers" do!)

Another interesting wrinkle: Bo Diddley used the name Ellas McDaniel, rather than "Bo Diddley" in his songwriting credits.

Certainly, I'm going to have to write a longer form piece to synthesize all of this stuff.

4:00 AM, January 02, 2009  
Anonymous Miguel said...

This is a good song! Addresses the related issue of how to cover a song that refers to you by name.

5:04 AM, July 15, 2009  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Nice. I'm glad Peter Gabriel does feel it's weird to sing his own name.

Here's the Wikipedia article:

4:57 AM, August 18, 2009  

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