Ram Jam’s Black Betty is a track most of us know by now. It’s been incredibly popular at sporting events to energize both the athletes and the crowd and was a major hit when Ram Jam released their version of the song in 1977. But the track has a much deeper history than just their recording of it, which is integral to understanding the meaning of the song. In this article, we’ll go over the history of Black Betty to help uncover the meanings hidden within the track and derive why it was such a big hit.
The History of “Black Betty”
Black Betty in its original version is nothing like the guitar-driven rock version recorded by Ram Jam. It was commonly recorded and sung a cappella in its infancy. The songwriter who wrote it is unknown, as are its true origins, but it likely dates back to the 1800s. This is pretty standard when it comes to folk songs and music passed down orally from that time period.
The first recording of the track was performed by James Baker in 1933 at Central State Farm, a prison farm in Texas. It was one of the early recordings that used hammer blows as the background sounds for the song, which would be replaced by clapping hands in later recordings.
Huddie William Ledbetter, or Lead Belly, was the singer who mainly popularized the track. He was a singer who dealt with all kinds of genres, from blues to gospel to folk. Born on a plantation in Louisiana, he would eventually be known as one of the artists who kept a lot of old folk songs alive by recording them during the 1900s, from Black Betty to Goodnight Irene.
Later versions would continue to help the song evolve. Dave Ray would record a version for his blues group’s 1964 album Lots More Blues, Rags, And Hollers. By 1968, Manfred Mann would release a version of the track with a title change, producing it as Big Betty. This version was performed by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1972 on the BBC.
Numerous recordings of the song would be produced throughout the years, with tons of different arrangements for the lyrics. Ram Jam’s version, and the one we know most today, would take a different approach to the classic folk style.
Bill Bartlett started out as a member of the Lemon Pipers, eventually forming a group called Starstruck. While that group was together, he would rearrange Huddie Ledbetter’s version of Black Betty as a rock song. It instantly became a regional hit, finding so much success that producers would form a band around Bartlett that would be known as Ram Jam.
The band would release the track Black Betty in 1977—which was the original recording of Bartlett’s version—to immediate success. It would rise to number 18 on the US Singles charts and find a place within the Top 10 in both the UK and Australia.
And here, we’ll take a quick look at the places Black Betty—the rock version at least—appeared in the years since the Ram Jam release. Their version would appear in the 2005 film Dukes Of Hazzard alongside a version by Spiderbait.
Figure skater Javier Fernandez used the song as the music for his performances in 2014-15, winning a third European Championship title and a World Championship Gold Medal.
You’ll also hear the track a couple of times in the show Family Guy and the film Kung Pow: Enter The Fist. The second one was fitting, as it plays during a fight scene between the hero and a villain who calls themselves “Master Betty.”
Meaning of “Black Betty,” The Folk and Ram Jam Versions
There’s a lot to go over when looking at the meaning of Black Betty, both as a song and as a single term. So, here we go.
The term Black Betty has referred to a bottle of whiskey, a jail transfer wagon, and a whip over the years. It’s also spent time as a euphemism for backcountry areas in the Eastern US and became a common way of referring to liquor bottles.
One of the earliest uses of the term “Black Betty” comes from none other than Benjamin Franklin. He published the book The Drinker’s Dictionary and included the term in a line stating that he had ‘kissed Black Betty,’ referencing a bottle of alcohol.
Caldwell’s Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876 also references another use of the term “Black Betty.” Again, it’s talking about a whiskey bottle, which was used as a prize during weddings. Traditional weddings in America would pit groomsmen against each other in a race, the prize was a bottle of hooch that they had to bring back to the groom.
Much, much later meanings of the term could refer to a very fast car or motorcycle, but that won’t be relevant to our discussion today.
If you just look at the lyrics in the song, you’d probably think it’s about a woman named Betty. In part, that’s true. It’s an old folk song about a black woman from Alabama who has a wild child. As wild as her kid is, Betty is just as wild, dancing and driving men crazy.
To really understand the meaning of the term “Black Betty” in the song though, you want to look at the people that kept the track alive. A good place to start is by looking into the book American Ballads & Folks Songs by the Lomaxes. According to those two, “Black Betty” is pretty obviously the whip that many southern prisons used. The first recordings of it were made by them in a Texas state prison so that part checks out.
It’s also worth looking at the description of the song in Robert Well’s Life Flows On In Endless Song: Folk Songs And American History. He wrote: As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, ‘bam-ba-lam.
The parts of the track can be dissected in plenty of different ways though, despite it seeming like there isn’t much there. While the original meaning of the term “Black Betty” in the context of the song is rather clear, it’s still left up to listeners how they interpret it.
The “‘bam-ba-lam” part of the song has had a few different meanings ascribed to it on its own. The likely original meaning was that it mimicked the sound of a whip hitting a slave’s back.
The Ram Jam version likely has no specific meaning. This may be disappointing for a lot of people who have read this far, but that’s the reality. In the end, Bartlett likely found an old folk song he liked the sound of and put his own spin on it. In a way, it helped keep the track alive after existing for so long and became a massive hit. It’s extremely doubtful there was any true intent with the song or any hidden meanings placed into the Ram Jam arrangement.
I see no interviews from the short-lived band available with them describing the meaning of the song, no later confessionals, and nothing pointing to anything deeper than Ram Jam’s Black Betty simply being a folk track rearranged into a high-energy rocker.
Racial Connotations to the Song
When Ram Jam first released Black Betty, the NAACP condemned the song for being offensive to black women. The University of New Hampshire hockey team used the track during their games for a long time as well, but in 2006, they also banned the song and discontinued using it.
I’m not qualified to debate whether or not a track is offensive to a group of people I don’t belong to. At the very least though, it’s not hard to say that white artists profiting from a song that originated with and was sung by slaves to describe their lives under slaveowner’s whips is an insensitive thing to do.
While Ram Jam’s version of the song is undeniably one of the biggest one-hit wonders of classic rock and isn’t overtly a problem, its appropriateness isn’t for someone like me to decide, so I will leave that decision up to any individuals reading this article.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.