Bo Diddley was an inspired poet with a consistent voice. His lyrics sounded spontaneous and tossed off, but they were coherent. Whatever the improvised circumstances of a song's creation, it resonated with all kinds of meanings, evoking a mysterious reality lurking beneath daily life that reached back to Africa via Mississippi. If Bo Diddley was comical, he was a jester who'd seen something horrifying. In the first four lines of "Who Do You Love" (think of it as "Hoodoo You Love") he walks 47 miles of barbed wire, uses a cobra for a necktie and lives in a house made of rattlesnake hide.
The lyrics of "Bo Diddley" owed something to "Hambone," Red Saunders' 1952 Chicago-made rhythm novelty hit, which in turn referred to a popular lullaby: Hush little baby, don't say a word / Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird / And if that mockingbird don't sing / Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring. But Bo Diddley ditched the bird and went straight to the ring, creating one of the iconic verses of rock 'n' roll:
Bo Diddley buy baby diamond ring,
If that diamond ring don't shine,
He gonna take it to a private eye
By the third verse, he was singing about a hoodoo spell: Mojo come to my house, a black cat bone.
Bo Diddley had been the name of an old vaudeville comedian who was still kicking around on the chitlin circuit when Ellas McDaniel recorded "Bo Diddley." The song's lyrics originally referred to an "Uncle John." Bandmate Billy Boy Arnold claimed to have been the one who suggested replacing those words with the comedian's name. It was an on-the-spot decision, he said, and it was the producer and label owner Leonard Chess who put out the record "Bo Diddley" using Bo Diddley as the artist's name.
It was positively modernist: a song called "Bo Diddley" about the exploits of a character named Bo Diddley, by an artist named Bo Diddley, who played the Bo Diddley beat. No other first-generation rock 'n' roller started out by taking on a mystical persona and then singing about his adventures in the third person. By name-checking himself throughout the lyrics of his debut record, Bo Diddley established what we would now call his brand. Today this approach to marketing is routine for rappers, but Bo Diddley was there 30 years before. He was practically rapping anyway, with stream-of-consciousness rhyming over a rhythm loop.
At a time when black men were not allowed overt expressions of sexuality in mainstream popular music, Bo Diddley, like his Chicago colleagues, was unequivocally masculine. But that did not make him antifeminist: he was the first major rock 'n' roll performer—and one of the few ever—to hire a female lead guitarist, Lady Bo (Peggy Jones), in 1957, and he employed female musicians throughout his career.
"I'm a Man" was recorded the year after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education. Anyone who hears that song as mere machismo misses a deeper reading of it. It was just 60 years before Ellas Bates was born that the 14th Amendment acknowledged as human beings people who had previously had the legal status of cattle, and who had been forbidden to learn to read and write: I'm a man / I spell M! A! N!
In case you didn't get what he was driving at, he spelled it out for you. His lyrics evoked a history that the white cover bands could never express: Africa, slavery, the failure of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, peonage, discrimination.
The Yardbirds had a U.S. hit in 1966 with what was by the standards of British rock a very good version of "I'm a Man," but they changed the third verse, because they wouldn't even try to step up to the African-American legend alluded to in the original: