After the exchange of songs between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd (Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama” followed by Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”), the next most famous musical altercation between two artists, prior to the hip-hop era, is likely that of Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. Albeit, Muddy Waters’ response to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” is probably more well known than the fact that it was a response at all. Oddly enough, in both cases, it seems to be the response-song that has enjoyed the most continuing popularity.
Bo Didley is best remembered for his rhythmic innovations, particularly the pounding beat of the song “Bo Diddley.” “Who Do You Love,” utilizing the same rhythm, was more frequently covered, and thus remains a more popular example of the rhythm of “Bo Diddley.” Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” on the other hand, does not lack for rhythmic innovation, and it was perhaps this rhythm, more than Diddley’s boastful lyrics, that first caught Waters’ attention.
Bo Diddley, “I’m a Man” (1955)
If you listen closely to Muddy Waters’ response, “Mannish Boy,” the similarity of the two sets of lyrics reveals a subtle mockery of Diddley’s boasts. When Waters states “Now I’m a man, passed twenty-one,” he’s implicitly mocking Diddley’s claim of full manhood at the age of twenty-one, one of Diddley’s claims in his song. By spelling out “M-A-N,” followed by the assertion “Not B-O-Y,” Waters again derides Diddley for his youthful confidence. The title “Mannish Boy” itself suggests that Diddley is not yet a “full-grown man.”
Muddy Waters, “Mannish Boy” (1955)
In some versions, Diddley’s claim to be able “make love to a woman” in “an hour’s time” is surpassed by Waters’ apparent ability to sexually satisfy women in under five minutes. This type of sexual boasting is a common subject that finds repetition in blues lyrics and resonance in contemporary hip-hop. Indeed, given the blues’ repetitive rhythms and melodies, semi-spoken, and often boastful, lyrics, many critics have found the roots of rap in blues musicians such as Muddy Waters. As such, Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” perhaps constitutes the blueprint for later hip-hop feuds, typified by the grudge between Jay-Z and Nas which reached its peak in 2001 with the exchange of “Takeover” and “Ether,” respectively, and concluded in 2006 with the release of Nas’ “Black Republican (ft. Jay-Z)”.
Jay-Z, “Takeover” (2001)
Nas, “Ether” (2001)
(PS. The version of “Mannish Boy” by The Band featuring Muddy Waters from The Last Waltz (1978) is worth the price of the DVD alone.)