That Bo Diddley Beat

Oh, that Bo Diddley beat.
When describing it
people say, always, “shave and a haircut,
two bits” as if people still knew
“two bits” used to mean a quarter,

as if you could still get a shave
and a haircut for a quarter; I am
showing my age knowing that,
showing my age even writing about
Bo Diddley, or Buddy Holly, or

Johnny Otis, who chose to claim early on
that he was Black though he was not
and stuck with it back when that was
at least a little bit of dangerous thing to do — 
though enough did it because it seemed to offer

a door to the same Promised Land
Chuck Berry had talked about — “shave and a haircut,
two bits,” and they would be in, except 
they could get out again if necessary
and take that crazy hand jive with them on the way out.

It falls into place under my hands 
easily enough after 57 years
of hearing it — my mother must have heard it
at least a few times
while I was in her womb.

It takes a bit of coordination 
to get it just right —
it’s not just a matter
of how I strum, but of how I
hammer on the chord

in conjunction with the strum. You don’t need
to understand it to get it close to right — the animal muscle
of repetition can get you there, and then it’s just a matter
of letting it carry you, the way it carries anyone
who lets it fall into place under their hands

and understands that it isn’t really theirs.
That it wasn’t Johnny Otis’s beat.  Not Buddy Holly’s
beat. That Bo got it from John Lee, John Lee
got it from his stepdad William, and who knows
where he got it?  Some diddley bow player,

some hambone man, some juba dancer
somewhere in Mississippi, in Shreveport —
somewhere I never have been and can’t go
and won’t claim to go. I did not build that house
by the roadside. It doesn’t matter how many miles

of barbed wire I walk. It doesn’t matter
who I love. I pay a lot more than two bits
for my haircuts and shaves. I have never
paid enough for how that beat falls
just right under my hands.

About Tony Brown

A poet with a history in slam, lots of publications; my personal poetry and a little bit of daily life and opinions. Read the page called "About..." for the details. View all posts by Tony Brown

4 responses to “That Bo Diddley Beat

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