Who Do You Love?

Bo Diddley’s beat changed the course of rock music. And his lyrics evoked a history that reached all the way to Africa.

(© Neal Preston/CORBIS)
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I'm goin' back down
To Kansas to
Bring back the second cousin,
Little John the Conqueroo

High John the Conqueror was a root that root doctors used. You might come back to Chicago from down South with some in your pocket. But in African-American lore, John the Conqueror was also an African king sold into slavery. Bo Diddley was claiming kinship to a king.

Bo Diddley made records for decades, improvising lyrics as he went along, creating a body of work that has yet to be appreciated in full. He had a long life, and a good life. He should have had a better one. He complained bitterly that he had been screwed on the money his songs generated. He had to keep working to pay the bills, still traveling around in his 70s.

He played for President and Mrs. Kennedy, as well as for the inauguration of George H. W. Bush. The day after Bo Diddley died, Senator Barack Obama clinched a major party's nomination for president. The general election won't be held until November, but in the meantime we can measure the distance African-Americans have traveled in the half-century since Bo Diddley made those records we still play.

Talk about your 47 miles of barbed wire.

Ned Sublette's most recent book is The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. He lives in New York City.


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