Rock’n’roll is the only good thing to come from the American stain of slavery and the institutionalized race hatred of Jim Crow. The connection between race and rock is often alluded to, but rarely discussed in anything but the most superficial detail. I suspect people would rather not be confronted by this fact: those who were the most battered, discarded, and discredited by the American dream invented the music that defines our lives. Eric Clapton talking about Buddy Guy or Robert Plant mumbling a few words about Clarksdale doesn’t teach us a goddamn thing about that. Their lip service to some airbrushed sepia-toned blues ideal is a smiley face painted over the fact that people were kidnapped from their continent, jammed into slave ships where they wallowed in their own shit and vomit for months, and then they and their descendants were committed into chains and forced servitude; the rhythms, rhymes, and melodic traces of those people lay the groundwork for our music.
The entire foundation of Pre-Beatles rock was built by those shut out financially and politically from the American dream, consigned to menial jobs in an inescapable American underclass caused by Jim Crow and insurmountable barriers in class and education. Likewise, it’s important to understand that although the Beatles have come to personify a certain aspect of the 1960s’ cultural rebellion, this had virtually nothing to do with the challenges to authority posed by rock music in the 1950s. Rock in the 1950s – and that includes white appropriations, like Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis – threatened people because it carried the aroma of the disenfranchised classes, particularly African Americans. The Beatles, on the other hand, just empowered middle class and upper class white people to wear their hair long and dress funny. This kind of stylistic rebellion is far, far less threatening than the potential class and cultural destabilization posed by music that was directly descended from the semi-permanent American underclass made up of former slaves (rural and urban) and poor rural whites.
Now, sometimes, explaining certain aspects of rock’s social and musical evolution can be done in a pretty simple manner. Do you want to understand the deep, almost Bronze-age roots of Rock’n’roll? Do you want to hear how the amazing, humming, thumping, and eternal groans, shouts, and hallelujah-songs of the deep and often horrific past resonate on your Mac Pro, today? Do you want to “get” how even though America gave it’s unwilling immigrants a gruesome eight-million ton shit bag of slavery to carry around, they still gave us back one of the most powerful and ubiquitous elements of our culture, Rock’n’roll?
Listen to “Bo Diddley,” the debut 45 by the singer of the same name, released in the spring of 1955. It pretty much tells the whole story, in two and a half minutes. Then go on and listen to his entire first album, released in 1958 and comprised of most of his single releases up to that point.
The melodic, lyrical, rhythmic and cultural framework of “Bo Diddley” had existed long before it was recorded in March 1955. That one song carried a millennia worth of anthropological baggage, yet it simultaneously invented rock’n’roll’s future.
The condensed version: American and Haitian Slaves of West African descent would do something called the “Juba” dance; it’s roots lay in the miraculous meters of their ancestral lands, modified and corrupted by some of the European reels, jigs, and clog dancing slaves in the New World were exposed to. Now, since slaves were banned from owning most drums or drum-type instruments (there was a fear they would be used to communicate with their brethren on other plantations), they learned to accompany their songs by elaborate clapping, slapping, and drumming on their own body. These two traditions – the Juba dance and the claps, chants, and slaps that accompanied it – came to be known as Hamboning.
By the late 19th Century, the couplets and rhymes that accompanied Hamboning had been fairly rigidly encoded; it was also being performed in Northern cities where the descendants of slaves had moved to seek opportunity and it had also spread to the rural white poor. Recordings or transcriptions of these archival Hambones are instantly recognizable as largely identical, both in meter and lyrics, to the song “Bo Diddley.”
In 1950, Alan Lomax, that legendary archivist of folk traditions throughout the world, sat in a classroom New York City’s Harlem and interviewed a 10-year old boy named Steve Wright. Under the watchful eye of a teacher, and with reverb-less close walls of the classroom clearly evident, Wright sang a song virtually identical to “Bo Diddley.” Likewise, in late 1951, popular country and western stylist Tennessee Ernie Ford (dueting with the considerably less famous Bucky Tibbes) released a single called “Hambone.” Melodically and lyrically, much of the song is identical to “Bo Diddley” (even it flattens out the hopping Juba rhythm into a fairly manic two-step).
Taken at face value, Bo Diddley’s fairly loyal interpretation of the ancient Hambone shouldn’t have made much noise. But there is far, far more to this story.
Not only does Bo inflate the Hambone with atomic gas, literally inventing the future of the rock electric guitar, he also repudiates the prohibition enforced on his ancestors and spells out the rhythm with real drums, primal and thumping with the power of ancient ceremony. “Bo Diddley” goes on to firmly encode the Hambone rhythm once and forever by both simplifying and elaborating it into the “shave and a haircut, 5 cents!’ format that will, from that moment forward, be known as The Bo Diddley Beat. Bo Diddley, on “Bo Diddley” (and many of the early 45s compiled on his first formal album), electrifies the trials, tribulations, celebrations, rhythms and voodoo of Disenfranchised America. He takes this story, a thousand years or more in the making, and adds a gorgeously profane noise that bridges the unimaginable past and the inconceivable future, swallowing the DNA of West Africa and spitting out the Sex Pistols.
“Bo Diddley” (not to mention “Hey Bo Diddley,” “Hush Your Mouth,” “Pretty Thing,” and “Who Do You Love,” all on that first album and all carved from the same ancient, profane, future-seeing, and holy magick) has the feel of some deeply strange folk music; yet winding around under, above, and alongside these ancient and venerable melodies are the guitar, that vastly important guitar. 50 years later, that guitar is still startling, a roaring and continuous wave of humming noise that can’t decide whether it’s going to summon the saints, the haints, or both. On a lot of these first-album tracks, Bo does nothing less than invent the modern rhythm guitar, laying the foundation for everything from the Kinks to the Velvet Underground to Black Sabbath and far, far beyond. Prior to “Bo Diddley,” the electric guitar had tic-tic-tic’d in a clipped rockabilly and hillbilly rhythm, or it had replicated the shortnin’ bread walking bass and sax lines of older jump blues, jazz, and r’n’b recordings. But for the first time, on “Bo Diddley” it just roars, it just goes whaggga whagga without stopping for breath, it just sounds like a plane whirring and a train picking up speed, all at the same time.
In fact, alongside Willie Kizart’s use of distorted electric guitar to play the walking boogie bass line on “Rocket 88” in 1951, what Bo does on “Bo Diddley” in 1955 is the most important development in the artistic evolution of the electric guitar. Bo just washes the rhythm, with no needling finesse, only a desire to create a butter-churned wall of H-Bomb electricity that somehow both emphasizes the ancient spirit of The Beat, while making it something totally new. After “Bo Diddley” the guitar would never be the same; this is Zero Hour at electric rhythm guitar trinity, the magic upon which our Ramonic future would be built.
There’s more, much more to Bo’s first, eponymous album; I mean, for god’s sakes, in addition to the flat-out fatback greasy-Delta-moonshot classics listed above, there’s theslurring, stomping “Diddy Wah Diddy” and the debut of the drunkass standard “I’m A Man.” Throughout, The songs are staggeringly simple yet complete, like passionate shorthanded notes to your voodoo sweetheart; and the album is so full of energy, joy, spontaneity, and a late-night blue-lit spirit that somehow the imperfections fit right in (“Before You Accuse Me” is especially marked by tuning inconsistencies and a few missed chords).
Prior to this, other singers had shrieked with lust and howled with hope and Hadacol; but no one had done it accompanied by the thrashing, throbbing, electrified spirit that humps and sizzles and drools through this album. This makes Bo Diddley the first modern Rock’n’roll record. You are hearing the old gods of Africa going though the Stargate built by Bo into rock’s future, where they still thrive.
Everything bright and brilliant and chunky and charging and simple and simply perfect about Rock’n’roll is contained in Bo Diddley. It is the moment where the future is invented, and the past opens its’ deprived, insulted, trashed but triumphant arms to welcome it. (Tim Sommer)
Click here for our review of Hugo Largo’s ‘Mettle’, the first ever post in TNPC: