A True King’s Playthings: Bo Diddley’s Beach Party

By Daniel Garrett

Bo Diddley, Beach Party
All songs by Elias McDaniel (except “Memphis”)
Produced by Marshall Chess and Max Cooperstein for Checker
Reissue Producer Andy McKaie
Geffen/Universal (Hip-o-Select), 2011

Individual and idiosyncratic, fun, rhythm-driven, and casually topical, Elias McDaniel performing as rhythm-and-blues guitarist and rock-and-rock pioneer Bo Diddley, his stage name, at the Beach Club on July 5th and 6th in 1963 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, presents the mostly cheerily shallow music and themes that have made rock an escape for adolescents and immature adults for decades.  Truth to tell, after decades of conquering a continent, economic struggle, and military conflict, music with no other goal but pleasure was probably a necessity to many Americans.  One can listen to the music and enjoy the candor of storytelling in a party atmosphere, though the sound quality is not ideal (some of it is dull, and some of it is scratchy).  Chuck Berry’s tune “Memphis” is a high energy beginning for a concert; and Bo Diddley’s song “Gunslinger,” with its chugging rhythm, offers the personal mythology of both survival and romance found in a lot of different kinds of artistic work.  “Hey Bo Diddley,” one of several songs in which the musician makes himself a featured and named character, like some performers today, has a back-and-forth ringing rhythm; and his singing voice is raw and exultant, even shouting, without being rude.  In the song, Bo Diddley sings “Baby, you know I love you so, I’ll never let you go,” the kind of recurring and rudimentary declaration of young love that reassures, even as its exuberance promises a certain single-minded trouble.  With its thick grooves and hammering rhythm, the music can be heard as rhythm-and-blues with a rock edge, or rock with rhythm-and-blues roots; and that makes it very American.  (The song begins as something you can dance to, but its rhythm becomes so dense it is nearly industrial; a prophetic development.)  Of course, Bo Diddley is one of the men—with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Ike Turner—who laid the foundation for rock and roll.

“Old Smokey” has an instrumental charm that does not have or require words, although, while listening to it, it is hard to know if Bo Diddley’s band consists of anything but guitar and drums.  “Bo Diddley’s Dog” is a song about a dance inspired by that favorite domestic animal, in which there are references to love, music, and ordinary life, with imitations of dog sounds and with nothing enumerated in a way that seems of great consequence; and it is a composition that makes it easy to see how such popular music could be seen as both fun and a mere distraction, or even, at worst, trash.  The tune “I’m All Right,” introduced as a communion service, consists of little more than its title and a brief evocation of romantic comfort (the singer’s moans and shouts could rise out of lust, misery, or praise); and it is the pleasure of a rapid rhythm that is being sold.  Consequently, the worried but somewhat humorous evocation of being with General Custer as he prepares to face American Indians (Native Americans) in battle in the song “Mr. Custer” is an intriguing and pleasant surprise.  “Bo’s Waltz,” like “Old Smokey,” is purely instrumental; and gives the listener another view of the inclination of certain guitarists’ to leave lyrics behind and go solo (one could count on the audience to pay attention to patterns of sound; it is an affirmation of musical mastery).  The dense and fast “Bo’s Waltz” slows, and it is easy to hear the waltz within.  About being nagged by a companion over time and money, indicating distrust, a song that is enjoyably sad, “What’s Buggin’ You” has a nice percussive accent, while “Road Runner” pantomimes chase.  Bo Diddley’s Myrtle Beach concert seems to have been fun, though one performance ended with police intervention when white women began dancing behind one of the band’s black male performers, Jerome Green, as he shook his maracas, proof of the transgressive power of the music in a segregated society.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.  Garrett has said, “I have been exploring American and international culture, for how they dignify, enliven, and illuminate human existence—something that sounds grand but can feel like a desperate need.  Inevitably, I am involved in the struggle of hope against despair and rage, and prefer history to forgetting, and appreciation to repudiation.”  Daniel Garrett returned to the American south, where he worked on a novel, A Stranger on Earth, begun in New York.

Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com