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Whips, whiskey, women, work, weapons, cars and cadence. But no hockey.
January 16, 2013 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Jump steady, Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!
Yeah, Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!
Looky yonder Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!
Whoa Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!
Yeah, Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!
She's so rock steady! Bam-A-Lam!
She's always ready! Bam-A-Lam!
Whoa, Black Betty! Bam-A-Lam!

The earliest recordings of the American folk/work song "Black Betty” were made in the early 1930s by American folklorists/musicologists John & Alan Lomax, who first recorded Blues legend Leadbelly. Odetta recorded a version of the song as part of a medley with “Looky Yonder” and “Almost Done”. While several artists in the mid-20th century recorded the song, the 1977 version by Ram Jam became a hit and catapulted the song into much wider exposure, while also becoming the version most cemented in the public’s awareness. More recent versions include Sheryl Crow, Ministry, and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels (with Sebastian Bach & Mick Mars). Volkswagon’s 2001 Superbowl ad featured the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s take on the song.

There are many suggested interpretations of the song’s lyrics. One is that it refers to an English marching cadence used by soldiers: Betty was a black flintlock musket, a precursor to the Brown Bess used by the British Army for over 100 years, with “BAM-A-LAM” being the sound of one being fired. Another possible origin is a name for a bottle of whiskey from the English/Scottish border region. In 1737 Benjamin Franklin wrote an article for the Pennnsylvania Gazette titled “The Drinker’s Dictionary” where “He has kissed black Betty” [sic] is listed as a descriptor (among very many) for someone who is drunk. “BAM-A-LAM” could also be evoking the sound of a bullwhip down South on plantations and prison farms like Sugar Land and Angola. The lyrics could also refer to the bumpy ride and/or the slamming doors of the horse-drawn prisoner transfer/police wagon known as the Black Mariah.

Ever since the Ram Jam version, groups like the NAACP and the Congress on Racial Equality have considered the song racist for the literal interpretation of the lyrics, specifically that they refer to a black woman and are insulting to Black women in general. While the driving beat and call-and-response aspect of the rock versions are still used at sporting events to get the crowd fired up, in 2006, the University of New Hampshire discontinued the playing of the Ram Jam version before hockey games.

The New Zealand A1 Grand Prix racing team uses a reworked cover of the Ram Jam version as a theme song for their car Black Beauty. “Black Beauty” is also the name of the Green Hornet’s car, a bestselling 1877 novel about a horse and kindness to animals, and an archaic street name for stimulants.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (52 comments total) 88 users marked this as a favorite

 
Big thanks to Lexica for help with the research.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 11:00 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


awesome post!
posted by Bwithh at 11:04 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


oh, man, I'd completely forgotten but last summer a friend and I were driving home after work, severely stoned (neither of us were behind the wheel) and a version of this song came on that had us in tears for how ridiculous it sounded - I later described it as hillbilly techno death metal. Anyways, there it is, 5th link in the main post - Spiderbait, made even more hilariously aweful by the inclusion of Seth Green.

Nice post!
posted by mannequito at 11:15 PM on January 16, 2013


There are many suggested interpretations of the song’s lyrics. One is that it refers to an English marching cadence used by soldiers: Betty was a black flintlock musket, a precursor to the Brown Bess used by the British Army for over 100 years, with “BAM-A-LAM” being the sound of one being fired.

That seems plausible because we know that Little Richard's Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom was composed for the 9th/12th Royal Lancers in honor of the Prince of Wales.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:24 PM on January 16, 2013 [9 favorites]


One ought not skip over Nick Cave's version, which is (I think) better than most, and which nicely avoids the Ram Jam influence entirely in favor of the a capella groove of the earlier renditions.
posted by koeselitz at 11:26 PM on January 16, 2013 [12 favorites]


(Nick Cave's version also has some kind of introduction, the provenance of which I do not know.)
posted by koeselitz at 11:30 PM on January 16, 2013


The Tom Jones version (second to last) is … nuts.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:35 PM on January 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, Ram Jam just so completely owns the hard rockin' version it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to cover it. Perform it live, sure, but why bother recording it?
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:37 PM on January 16, 2013


For some reason the only version I know is the Spiderbait version.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 11:44 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


Very cool post!

I once went to a hurricane party where there was a rule that everyone had to say "Bam-a-lam" at the end of every sentence or take a shot. I don't remember much else about that party.
posted by a hat out of hell at 12:02 AM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


I saw Wham! do Bam-a-Lam.
I saw it on a cam with will.i.am.

I do not like them,
will.i.am
I do not like
Wham! Bam-a-Lam.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:18 AM on January 17, 2013 [17 favorites]


Always loved the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion version from that Volkswagen ad. Popped up later on a 7" backed with their theme to Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations.

Rad song, generally whoever does it with zeal.
posted by myopicman at 1:07 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


mannequito: "oh, man, I'd completely forgotten but last summer a friend and I were driving home after work, severely stoned (neither of us were behind the wheel) and a version of this song came on that had us in tears for how ridiculous it sounded - I later described it as hillbilly techno death metal."

I don't think you've heard much death metal. Or techno.

(If I had to describe it, I'd say it's mostly blues filtered through old-school speed metal with some bluegrass and a little industrial).
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:34 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Both John Spencer Blues Explosion and Meat Loaf seem to just be doing small variations on the Ram Jam version, and is kind of boring, in my opinion. Spiderbait and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at least try to do something different (I think NCatBS succeed, Spiderbait kinda sorta).
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:45 AM on January 17, 2013


Great post. I knew the song was badass but now I appreciate it even more since the lyrics seem to be about prison, guns, whipping, cars, drinking, desiring sex with mean women, and just about anything else your parents wouldn't be into.
posted by colie at 2:27 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love both the Ram Jam and the Spiderbait versions of this song, both good to rock out with.

Not sure how it's supposedly racist though?
posted by MartinWisse at 2:44 AM on January 17, 2013


I'm guessing that was ramjam live? Awesome anyway. Great post
posted by mattoxic at 2:54 AM on January 17, 2013


Not sure how it's supposedly racist though?

Well, they've obscured it a bit, but the original version was called "Black Sally" and it was sung by Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers.
posted by three blind mice at 2:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


But whatever, this is a great song.
posted by three blind mice at 2:56 AM on January 17, 2013


Spiderbait need a new approach to overdrive - or is 'trapped wasp guitar sound' a thing now?
posted by colie at 3:13 AM on January 17, 2013


Also, Ram Jam quite clearly features Bill Gates on guitar and lead vocals.
posted by colie at 3:18 AM on January 17, 2013


The Ram Jam version was a hit when I was growing up and for years I thought it was the original. The Tom Jones version made more sense once I realized it was something of a blues/folk classic.

Years later when I got two puppies I wanted to name them after songs; with some help from friends I came up with Bertha for the tan one and the black one was named, of course, Betty.
posted by TedW at 3:29 AM on January 17, 2013


Koerner, Ray and Glover recorded "Black Betty" in 1964.
posted by rdone at 4:06 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always thought it had a bit of sea-shanty or gandydancer song to it. Just haul or heave on the "Whoaaah"
posted by eriko at 4:08 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's face it, "Ram Jam" is a sweet name.
posted by josher71 at 4:11 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not sure how it's supposedly racist though?

My hunch is it's if you use a literal interpretation of the lyrics (i.e. assuming the song is about a human woman named "Betty" who happens to be African-American). I think the Ram Jam version also talks about Black Betty having a child, but he swears it ain't his...and if you have a bunch of white guys talking about what you think is knocking up a black woman, it at least feels a little hinky.

But that's also only if you ignore the fact that Leadbelly recorded this song first, so...whatever.

(damn good post. My last MeFi music swap was made up of "traditional/folk songs that rock and pop stars covered," and I closed with Ram Jam. And Leadbelly stuff was actually all over that mix.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:12 AM on January 17, 2013


But that's also only if you ignore the fact that Leadbelly recorded this song first, so...whatever.

I don't find the lyrics, even interpreted as referring to a black woman, to be particularly racist. But Leadbelly singing it has nothing to do with whether it's racist. There are plenty of blues songs that are racist, and are sung by Blacks. Many of them clearly express internalized racist ideas, most commonly a gradation of worth based on skin color, with blacker people being bad. Willie McTell sings several songs that reference brown, black, and "yellow" women that explore this theme, but it's a pretty common blues trope.
posted by OmieWise at 4:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Great Post.
Jones the voice. More facelifts than Silvio Berlusconi.
This guy was one of the great rock and roll misses. With that voice he could have been so great but got totally corporated.
posted by adamvasco at 5:04 AM on January 17, 2013


I don't find the lyrics, even interpreted as referring to a black woman, to be particularly racist. But Leadbelly singing it has nothing to do with whether it's racist.

I was referring more to the unique cultural baggage surrounding instances of white men fooling around with black women. There is nothing inherantly hinky about that, or any interracial relationship, but there are those who may perceive it to be an unpleasant reminder of the racial disparity and inequity involved in that particular act back in the days when white men were in something of a unique position of power over black women. My allusion to Leadbelly was more a reference to the original artist not having the weight of this baggage, and an acknowledgement that Ram Jam were just big Leadbelly fans and may have themselves been ignorant of this perception.

I am also just guessing why it would be perceived as racist, anyway, and may be totally wrong.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:44 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my head, I've always associated this band (and this song) with Alabama. (The band because their name reminds me of "rammer jammer yellowhammer", the song because it explicitly references Birmingham.) Anyone know if there actually is any connection between these guys and Alabama?
posted by ocherdraco at 5:44 AM on January 17, 2013


Any folk song with non-sequitur or nonsense lyrics are almost always chock-full of political or social commentary that doesn't make any sense at all today. ("Ring Around the Rosie" will straight up break your heart and put a serious chill down your spine if you google it, so don't google it.)

Black Betty is almost certainly a song along these lines.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:53 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Willie McTell sings several songs that reference brown, black, and "yellow" women that explore this theme, but it's a pretty common blues trope.

Definitely. Here's an example from Charley Patton's famous Pony Blues:

brownskin woman, like something fit to eat
brownskin woman, like something fit to eat
but a jet black woman, don't put your hands on me
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Any folk song with non-sequitur or nonsense lyrics are almost always chock-full of political or social commentary that doesn't make any sense at all today.

Well, yes and no. Non-sequitor lyrics in blues and folk songs are often non-sequitors because they were just borrowed wholesale from some other place. Either by the line or the verse. They may have made sense in the original context, or they may have been social commentary in the original context, but mean precisely nothing in the song that you're listening to.
posted by OmieWise at 6:06 AM on January 17, 2013


Somewhat... related?
posted by Huck500 at 6:08 AM on January 17, 2013


Nice piece a work, man.
posted by Twang at 6:44 AM on January 17, 2013


"Ring Around the Rosie" will straight up break your heart and put a serious chill down your spine if you google it, so don't google it.

The supposed plague references in that nursery rhyme have been pretty thoroughly debunked, I think.
posted by elizardbits at 7:35 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Great post! I was first curious about this song when it snuck into the tail end of X's True Love (Part 2) - and it's the part that gets stuck in my head most often. Thanks!
posted by peagood at 7:56 AM on January 17, 2013


No seriously. The Tom Jones one - with the coloured girls singing and the jiving negro servantsers.

What the hell?
posted by sparklemotion at 7:58 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this. I made a Black Betty playlist for myself a few years ago and often listen to it on the bus.

I have to say, there is no song more guaranteed to make me laugh my arse off in public than the Tom Jones cover. It's so bombastic and ridiculous and wrongheaded in every possible way.
posted by hot soup girl at 8:09 AM on January 17, 2013


The Tom Jones version samples Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, which has almost the exact same riff. Weird.
posted by Acey at 9:17 AM on January 17, 2013


Slap*Happy: “‘Ring Around the Rosie’ will straight up break your heart and put a serious chill down your spine if you google it, so don't google it.”

Well, it is worth googling. It has nothing to do with the plague. The earliest attestation we have is a German children's song from the very late 1700s, and that children's song has nothing to do with the plague, either. It's just a nice little song about children dancing in a ring. Wikipedia has a good overview.
posted by koeselitz at 9:53 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cultural literacy is a hell of a drug.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:07 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love that Tom Jones cover. Jones is so awesome in a completely over the top way.

When I was a little girl (like two or three), I apparently was completely in love with him according to my mother. A few years ago, I rediscovered him, with a new appreciation because of things like this. He's like the William Shatner of music (and yes I know Shatner has albums out).
posted by immlass at 10:16 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


This has answered many questions about this song that I was only barely aware that I had. Thanks so much for this.
posted by jessamyn at 10:16 AM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


He's like the William Shatner of music (and yes I know Shatner has albums out).

But Tom can actually sing worth a damn.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:33 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyone know if there actually is any connection between these guys and Alabama?

Ram Jam seem to have been an Ohio band.

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:55 AM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dang, just came across the band Woman totally rockin an acoustic, harmony-heavy version of Black Betty at the 2012 Isle of Wight Festival.

This, along with DMC, is my current favorite version.

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:05 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


What? No kitchen sink?
posted by NedKoppel at 12:26 PM on January 17, 2013


I always assumed 'Black Betty' was a car, like Christine. Probably from the Spiderbait video.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:01 PM on January 17, 2013


See also: Poor Black Mattie.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:12 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I always assumed 'Black Betty' was a car"...

Looks live VW tried to capitalize on the idea that Black Betty
is a car.
posted by quazichimp at 11:46 PM on January 17, 2013


WAAF in Boston used to do a parody of it, sung by a Ted Kennedy impersonator, called of course Big Teddy. I have searched all over the internets for it to no avail.

In part, it went like this:

Whoa big Teddy, Bam a lam
Whoa big Teddy, Bam a lam
drive through Waltham
Bam a lam
then down to Framingham
Bam a lam.

If anyone can find that would be cool.
posted by vrakatar at 9:33 PM on January 31, 2013


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