How do you cover Bo Diddley's "Bo Diddley"?
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:
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.")