Tuesday, December 30, 2008

How do you cover Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley"?

UPDATE: Douglas Hofstadter contributes to the discussion of this pressing issue! New post coming shortly. Here it is!

When other artists cover Bo Diddley's song "Bo Diddley" should they actually sing the words "Bo Diddley" or should they substitute their own name?

I sort of think they should use their own name. Part of the charm/weirdness of this song is that it's about the singer himself, and that he refers to himself in the third person. If you're singing about somebody else, it changes the whole nature of the song. Here are the lyrics:

Bo Diddley bought his babe a diamond ring,
If that diamond ring don't shine,
He gonna take it to a private eye,
If that private eye can't see
He'd better not take the ring from me.

Bo Diddley caught a nanny goat,
To make his pretty baby a Sunday coat,
Bo Diddley caught a bear cat,
To make his pretty baby a Sunday hat.

Mojo come to my house, ya black cat bone,
Take my baby away from home,
Ugly ole mojo, where ya bin,
Up your house, and gone again.

Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley have you heard?
My pretty baby said she wasn't for it.

I suppose you can sing the song pretending that you're Bo Diddley, but it isn't the same thing. Of course it's never exactly the same thing when you cover a song written by someone else. But this song poses a greater dilemma than others. Many songs refer to specific other people ("Johnny Yuma was a rebel..."), but the specific person this song refers to is the singer himself. Part of the shock value of the song is that the singer is referring to himself so blatantly and specifically. If you're just pretending to be Bo Diddley singing about himself, none of that comes through.

The song shifts from third to first person, and back again. This poses another difficulty for those who try to cover the song without changing the lyrics: When Bo Diddley makes this shift, it's clear he's referring to himself in both cases. When someone else makes that shift, it sounds like the subject of the song is shifting back and forth between some character named Bo Diddley and the narrator. Maybe to properly cover the song, other performers should keep the lyrics as they are, but adopt the stage name "Bo Diddley"!

Another problem comes from the overall attitude of the song: If you (assuming you are not Bo Diddley, and given that he passed away this year, that is highly unlikely, unless you followed my suggestion from the previous paragraph) sang the song, keeping the words "Bo Diddley" in the lyrics, it sounds like sort of a tribute to the greatness of this other person, Bo Diddley. And the whole point of the song is that it's a boast about the singer, not a paean to someone else. You can't get this effect unless you use your own name.

Maybe Bo Diddley delibrately wrote the song (and others, such as "Hey Bo Diddley" and "The Story of Bo Diddley") in such a way so that they would be difficult to cover, or rather so that no cover could ever really have the impact of Bo Diddley's versions. Fortunately for those who wish to cover him, there are plenty of Bo Diddley songs that do not have this problem.

Of course, substituting your own name raises another potential problem: "Bo Diddley" is said as a dactyl (BO-did-ley) and if your name isn't a dactyl or couldn't be crammed or stretched into the same metrical space you'd have to alter the rhythm of the lyrics. And much of the power of Bo Diddley's music comes from the driving rhythms. If I were to cover the song, I could use "Zachary" as a decent substitute. Of course the alliteration of the first line would be destroyed. And I'd lose the specificity of having both a first and last name in the lyrics: "Zachary" could be a bunch of people. "Zachary Drake" is me specifically (OK, there are others, but I will fight them in single combat and defeat them. There can be only one!), but it can't possibly be used with out derailing the meter entirely.

And then there's a question of the title of the song: if you substitute your own name for Bo Diddley's in "Bo Diddley", shouldn't you change the title of the song, too? But how will people know which song you're referring to if you change the title? But if you don't change the title, you lose some of the boastful effect of naming the song after yourself. If I were trying to emulate Donald Trump, it would unthinkable to go around naming a bunch of my real estate developments after Donald Trump. The correct thing to do would be to name them after myself! So if I recorded the song "Bo Diddley" on an album, shouldn't the track listing say "Zachary" instead of "Bo Diddley"? Think of the confusion of someone listening to my CD, and seeing the title "Bo Diddley", but not hearing the lyric "Bo Diddley" anywhere in the song! But if someone saw the track title "Zachary", how would they know that it's a cover of Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley"? Maybe a footnote? That just seems weak. Bo Diddley wouldn't require a footnote.

Well, has anyone made the choice I'm advocating? I guess not. Buddy Holly, when he covered the song, chose to sing "Bo Diddley" rather than use his own name:

I wonder if Douglas Hofstadter has ever tackled this problem. It's the sort of thing that would interest him: it's about self-reference, translation, and analogy. I'll email him and ask.

Well, that's enough on that. This whole thing was inspired that my brother Niko gave me a Bo Diddley CD for Christmas. My other Bo Diddley post is here ("Rock-n-roll is autism made infectious.")


Blogger Niko said...

Glad the Bo Diddley cd inspired such deep thoughts on covers and the translation of meanings! Hope you're enjoying the other songs on the cd too

2:28 AM, December 31, 2008  
Blogger grishnash said...

I think if you sing the song, you should leave it as "Bo Diddley" and change the first person references to third person if you are not Bo Diddley.

Yes, that changes the overall feeling of the song as you pointed out. The song is about Bo Diddley, and thus only Bo Diddley is capable of singing it in reference to himself.

If you want a song about yourself, I'm afraid you'll have to write your own. Just like Bo Diddley did when there wasn't already a song about him.

8:49 AM, December 31, 2008  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

I like your solution, Grishnash. It solves some of the problems outlined. And it preserves a core aspect of the song: the fact that it's a song about Bo Diddley.

But what is striking to me about the song is that it features the singer's own name so prominently. I think "Bo Diddley"'s status as a canonical "Golden Oldie" has habituated us to how weird this is. I'm trying to imagine Chuck Berry or Elvis or Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty or anybody else singing their own name so much in a song. It's just strange. And to me, that strangeness is what is most remarkable, and what is most worth preserving in any attempted cover.

I agree that the best solution is to write your own weirdly self-referential song. But then you aren't actually covering Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley". So perhaps the solution is to come to a broader understanding of what "covering" a song is.

Actually, I think I've just had a breakthrough in my understanding of what "Bo Diddley" is: "Bo Diddley" is the kind self-referential statement that Godel used to demolish the notion that we could create systems of sufficient complexity to do arithmetic but that were free of true but unprovable statements.

Godel showed that in a sufficiently complex formal system X, there will always be statements that are true in X, but unprovable in X (statements analogous to "This statement is unprovable in X"). With "Bo Diddley", Bo Diddley showed that it is possible to create a song worth stealing, but that can never really be stolen without fundamentally changing it. He does this exactly the same way Godel did: by using self-reference. By making the central message of "Bo Diddley" something like {This song is about me(1), Bo Diddley(2)}, he made it impossible for anyone else to capture the whole meaning of the song.

Grishnash's solution is to drop meaning (1), above. You can still sing a song "Bo Diddley" about Bo Diddley. The fact that the title of the song is "Bo Diddley" almost forces you to make this choice. If the song was called "Pretty Baby", then changing the name of the narrator might not be so problematic. But note that the way the lyrics are written, there really isn't another possible title to the song: nothing in the lyrics comes close to the prominence of the words "Bo Diddley", as I discovered just now when I scanned the lyrics for a plausible alternate title.

My solution is to drop meaning (2), because for me the most important thing to do is to preserve the fact that this song is about the singer, not that it's about Bo Diddley. But it's impossible to preserve both aspects unless you are Bo Diddley. Maybe that's why Buddy Holly's cover, while musically good, just doesn't do it for me (and I'm probably more of a Buddy Holly fan than a Bo Diddley fan).

So my next question is: did Bo Diddley have a Godelian objective in mind (making his songs difficult for others to capture fully) or was he just using self-reference as a way of making his songs more noteworthy? I have heard that many people ripped off Bo Diddley's songs and that he was very fearful of this (certainly his rhythms and riffs have become widespread), so maybe he deliberately set out, Godel-like, to craft a song that could never be effectively ripped off. The fact that "Bo Diddley" was one of his first songs casts some doubt on this hypothesis: when starting out his recording career, I would think his main concern would be achieving prominence rather than foiling those who were trying to steal his music.

That being said, self-reference is more than a passing interest for Bo Diddley: it seems like it was something like an obsession: Check out these song titles, pulled from his first two albums alone:

Bo Diddley
Hey, Bo Diddley
Diddley Daddy
Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger

Later, he did "The Story of Bo Diddley".

By the way, I wrote to Douglas Hofstadter at Indiana University about this. We'll see if I get a reply. Even if I don't, I'm glad I did because it put me in mind of Kurt Godel and lead to my mental breakthrough. Maybe now I can stop obsessing about this problem.

Covering "Bo Diddley" is like trying to translate the following sentence into another language:

This sentence, which is completely true, is written in English (the native tongue of Shakespeare, Zachary Drake, Douglas Hofstadter, and Bo Diddley) and would be very difficult to translate into another language while preserving its full meaning.

And now to bed.

10:06 AM, December 31, 2008  
Blogger grishnash said...

Wow. Now there's something I never expected to read, but yet I can't deny it. Bo Diddley is axiomatic.

10:55 AM, December 31, 2008  

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