“Black Betty” could mean several things. It could be a bottle of whiskey, the whip used to punish slaves, a vehicle used for transporting prisoners, or even a Black woman named Betty. Lead Belly may not have been the first singer to record it, but his version is the most famous. It’s in the form of a call-and-response work song that was common among slaves to pass the time while toiling. Ram Jam’s lyrics aren’t exactly the same as Lead Belly’s, but they’re nearly so. As with many work songs, particularly work songs sung by slaves, there are numerous coded messages in the lyrics. One example would be, “Cap’n can’t hold ’em the way I can,” meaning that the spirit of freedom in the words has more power than the overseer. Ram Jam’s version doesn’t include that particular line, or the line about Addie having a “gold mine up above the knee,” referring to a woman’s sex organs. Ram Jam sings instead about a Black woman named Betty who, “… makes me sing, …” while, “… shakin’ that thing …”

Billboard Performance

The song was called “The Silliest Song of 1977.” The Rolling Stone reviewer completely missed the point because work songs of this type were supposed to have silly lyrics to hide the coded messages. The song was popular where it was played and likely would have been No. 1 if that review hadn’t been published. Also, the band felt that opposition from the NAACP hampered the song, which wasn’t released in either New York or Los Angeles, the two biggest markets in the United States.

Equally silly were the misheard versions of the lyrics, one of which incomprehensibly equated the band with bestiality: “bang a lamb” instead of “bam a lam.” These incorrect lyrics both amused and annoyed the band members. Because of the mild controversy, the Rolling Stone review, and the comical misinterpretations, the song only hit No. 18 on the Billboard 100, respectable but not Earth-shaking. The band members noted that the song went into obscurity for decades after its brief “day in the sun.” And, they were pleasantly surprised that in the second decade of the 21st century, folks are returning to it as a rocking driving song. One band member mentioned that he was at Yankee Stadium and heard the song as ringtones on several people’s phones.

Other Places the Song Has Appeared

Aside from numerous covers, the song has appeared in film and television soundtracks. From disasters such as 2005’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” to qualified successes like “Entourage” and “Dancing With the Stars,” the song has been ever-present in other media


Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Black Betty had a child (Bam-ba-lam)
The damn thing gone wild (Bam-ba-lam)
She said, “I’m worryin’ outta mind” (Bam-ba-lam)
The damn thing gone blind (Bam-ba-lam)
I said oh, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
She really gets me high (Bam-ba-lam)
You know that’s no lie (Bam-ba-lam)
She’s so rock steady (Bam-ba-lam)
And she’s always ready (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)

Get it!

Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
She’s from Birmingham (Bam-ba-lam)
Way down in Alabam’ (Bam-ba-lam)
Well, she’s shakin’ that thing (Bam-ba-lam)
Boy, she makes me sing (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-lam)
Whoa, Black Betty
Bam-ba-laaam, yeah, yeah

Source: Musixmatch

Songwriters: Huddie Ledbetter

Listeners of music from the 1970’s, might also appreciate the song Rocket man by Elton John.