There are many interpretations and meanings behind the classic Ram Jam song, “Black Betty.” But what is the original meaning and story behind the song? We explore that below. We’ve also included some great covers and remixes of the tune to get your groove on!
The composition we are talking about is one of those artistic works considered a cult and famous worldwide, and people recognize such songs from the first chord. The meanings of the song Ram Jam – Black Betty are interesting to explore.
The Story of the Ram Jam – Black Betty song
The story of the creation of this composition goes back to ancient times. Credits for this track include Huddie William Ledbetter and Traditional. For the first time, it was mentioned much earlier. There is evidence that references to «Black Betty» were discovered in one of the old marching songs of British soldiers in the 18th century. There are many recorded versions of «Black Betty.»
In 1977, the rock-n-roll band Ram Jam, with the help of Bill Bartlett included, re-released an edited version of the Starstruck recording with producers Jerry Kasenets and Jeffrey Katz under Epic Records. Earlier, Bill Bartlett was a guitarist for bands Starstruck and Lemon Pipers. The song had great success; it conquered many charts and was loved by people worldwide. Some achievements of the music: 18 places on the singles charts in the US, top-10 in Australia and the UK.
The composition was included on the «Negro Sinful Songs» album released by Lead Belly in 1939 and on the debut album «Ram Jam» by Ram Jam in 1977. It isn’t easy to establish the source of the artwork now, but the fact is that the members of the Ram Jam band were not the direct authors of the artwork. Of course, this track became the most famous in the entire short creative period of the team.
It may seem that black Betty is a lady, but the song is far from a romantic mood. There are different versions of the song’s meaning; they will be discussed a little later.
What does Ram Jam – Black Betty song mean?
When you first hear the name of this song, it seems obvious that Betty is an animated, real woman. But everything is not as simple as it seems at first glance, and this is the beauty of the art of music. There are many variations of the meaning of the song title: that the main hero is a firearm, namely a black-handled musket, or that Black Betty is a bottle of Scotch whiskey. There is also an opinion that Black Betty is a knot for punishing convicts. Let’s take a closer look at several versions of the meaning of the song name.
There is an opinion that the song originated from an XVIII century combat cadenza about a flintlock gun with black stock paint; the words «bam-ba-lam» refers to the sounds of gunshots. From the early XVIII century, the standard musket had a walnut stock and was therefore known to the British Army (at least by 1785) as the «Brown Bess.» There is also an opinion that Black Betty is a cannonball.
Alcohol or drugs
David Hackett Fischer wrote a book, «Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America,» and there he said that «Black Betty» was a name for a whiskey bottle in the fringes of northern England, Southern Scotland, and later some areas of the USA. In January 1736, Benjamin Franklin (that person depicted on the $100 bill) published in the Pennsylvania Gazette the Drinkers’ Dictionary, offering more than 200 drunken circle phrases. One of them is «He kissed black Betty,» which means that he got drunk. Other sources in the USA refer to «Black Betty» as a bottle of not whiskey but liquor (its color is closer to black). There is also an opinion that Black Betty is a stimulant drug in pills or even hard drugs (heroin).
Musicologist John Avery Lomax expressed the opinion that «Black Betty» is a knot. He and his son Alan Lomax’s 1934 book «American Ballads and Folk Songs» says about the origins of «Black Betty»: «Black Betty is not another Frankie and not a doppelganger that a man can moan about in his blues. She is a knot that was and is used in some southern convicts. Convicted at Durrington Farm in Texas, where the whipping was virtually discontinued, the next song made fun of Black Betty and mimicked her conversation».
Robert V. Wells, the Chauncey H. Winters Professor of History and Social Sciences at Union College, in «Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History,» writes: «Back in the 60-s, however, the car carrying people to prison was named Black Betty». Later versions represented «Black Betty» as various vehicles, including a motorcycle and a hot rod.
The most logical and literal understanding and explanation of the title is that Black Betty is still the woman with whom the author was in love. The text that Black Betty had a baby is not entirely logical when it comes to alcohol or vehicles. In one of the telephone interviews, Bill Bartlett says that his personal understanding is that the legendary «Black Betty» is actually dedicated to Bettie Page, a famous American fashion model who starred in 1950-1957 pin-up queen. Betty Page was a kind of personal inspiration for Bill Bartlett.
Analysis of the most controversial lines of the song
Let’s take a look at the specific words that make this song so ambiguous.
«Black Betty had a child (bambalam), the damn thing gone wild (bambalam)» – here, we can only guess whether we are talking about a kid in the literal sense or about some kind of brainchild, offspring, or creation.
«She said: I’m worrying outta mind» – because of this line, we start to think that Betty is a real woman because neither a rifle nor a car can say anything.
«The damn thing went blind» – here we are talking about the fact that someone is blind, but it’s impossible to say exactly who, or it was Betty herself, or a child, or the author (from her beauty), even in the context of the rest of the text songs.
«She’s so rock steady, and she’s always ready» – but this line makes us more likely to think that we are talking about a gun because a woman usually cannot be hard.
«She’s from Birmingham» – of course, here you can say that this woman was born in Birmingham, but it is also known that there are many gun manufacturing enterprises in Birmingham. For example, Birmingham Small Arms Company Limited. In 1767 alone, there were 35 gun and pistol makers in Birmingham. Muskets made here were used during the English Civil War. And another fact that can connect a track with Birmingham: on September 15, 1963, a bomb was planted in a Baptist church for African Americans in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, by members of the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan right during the service. It was a real racist terrorist act.
«She’s shaking that thing» – what’s up with Betty? For this line, the most appropriate meaning is that Black Betty is a knout.
«Get it!» – if it was about a woman, then the text would be «take her,» but the inanimate gender indicates that it is about some kind of subject.
The meaning of the Song Ram Jam – Black Betty song
This Ram Jam song is ambiguous. Each listener, getting acquainted with the text, can think about something of his own and present his own interpretations. For example, the song was subject to many bans due to the straightforward interpretation of Black Betty as a black womanbans. In 2006, the New Hampshire University was banned from playing Ram Jam’s «Black Betty» at the UNH Hockey Game. Marty Scarano, Athletic Director of the University, explained the reason for his decision: «Our university is never going to stand for something that offends any segment of society.»
The racist aspect has generally become controversial for this song. But, if you think a little more about it, the accusations of racism are not only baseless but also absurd. The song doesn’t say anything bad about black people (even if Betty is actually a black woman). On the contrary, the heroine is perceived positively and attractively. And racism is a negative phenomenon; there is no negativity in the song, even if you look at how Ram Jam performs it – incendiary and joyful.
You can also understand «Black Betty» as a song about the Queen of Spades and just about a brunette woman. Perhaps she was black or dark figuratively, like in her soul. In the song, by and large, nothing specific is sung; basically, it consists of exclamations and pronouns «Whoa,» «Oh yeah,» and something like that. But from the context, we understand that Black Betty is something powerful and personifies something that inspires the author in the strongest way, which struck him so much that he dedicated a song to it.
The summary is as follows: the author refers to Black Betty, who gave birth to a child and became distraught. Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is that this woman lost her child, but perhaps we are talking about a bullet that flew out of a musket. The song also says that Black Betty is «always ready» and is from Birmingham.
Alabama legend says this song belongs to Betty, who was something of a local legend among bar-goers in the early 40s. She was a blues enthusiast and performed throughout Alabama under the name «Black Betty.»
The lyrics of the song are very simple; one might say primitive. At the same time, the song is very rhythmic, which is why African-American workers just fell in love with it. Oppressed African Americans (who were often engaged in grueling, dull work) sang certain songs such as «Black Betty» to add rhythm to work and thus do said work more efficiently. Music can really stick in your head, and «Black Betty» is just one of those «sticky» artworks that you involuntarily sing for a long time, only once you hear it.
And finally, in words, the «Whoa, Black Betty, babalam» sound «babalam» can be interpreted as the sounds of gunfire. And it can also be like pouring whiskey, knocking glasses against each other, or even the sounds of intimate entertainment. Who likes what. There is another realistic interpretation of this sound combination: perhaps bambalam is an existing slang referring to a person from Birmingham, Alabama.
Facts about Ram Jam – Black Betty song
You can discuss the song’s meaning for a long time, but there are facts associated with it that are undeniable. And there are many such facts.
- In the late 1800s, this track became the working anthem of the Afghan-American prisoners;
- The length of the song is 2 minutes 32 seconds, and the album version lasts much longer – 3 minutes 57 seconds;
- The first recording of «Black Betty» was made in 1933 by music scientists John and Alan Lomax, the performer was the prisoner James Baker nicknamed The Iron Head;
- Thus, the Ram Jam work can be considered a cover;
- Previously, cover versions of this legendary song have already been created, for example, by the band Starstruck;
- The legendary song can be discovered (even in 2 variations) in the 2005 movie «The Dukes of Hazzard» the Ram Jam version is included in the album of soundtracks;
- World figure skating titleholder J.Fernandez demonstrated his program to the Ram Jam version of «Black Betty» in 2014–15 as he won his 3rd European title and 1st world title. Championship golden medal;
- The artwork can be heard in some levels of videogames, like Rayman Legends in 2013;
- Ben Liebrand, a well-known Dutch DJ, 1989 made a remix of this song as a Rough ‘n’ Ready Remix, it had success, reaching number 13 in the United Kingdom as well as charting in some other countries;
- Ted Demme used this composition as the soundtrack for his movie «Blow».
- This song is also featured in John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s «Basic.»
You could hear all sorts of variations of this song anywhere: in video games, at hockey games, performed by the kid from the next apartment who is learning to play the electric guitar at 3 a.m. «Black Betty» is a true rock classic, a hit with a long history, loved by many people passionate about music.
So, the «Black Betty» song means what you want it to mean. It is no longer possible to ask the authors about its meaning, and even during their lifetime, they did not explain it. And this is the beauty of music – in the freedom of interpretation. As Bill Bartlett said, the main thing in music is to have a good experience listening to it, and the search for meaning is secondary.