Not Everything is a Metaphor

It’s long bugged me that the Wikipedia entry on “Black Betty” claims the song is about everything but what it is at face value. It’s a gun! It’s a hearse! It’s a whip! It’s a liquor bottle.

Here’s my guess, though. I think “Hammer Ring” was a well-known work song.

And then I think something happened, a real thing, to a woman named Betty and, when the men wanted to sing about it, they adapted and adopted “Hammer Ring” to serve their needs. Whatever those guys told the Lomaxes about it, that’s on the Lomaxes for believing it. The subversive, transgressive truth, I think, is in the lyrics.

Let’s go with James “Iron Head” Baker’s version:

 


And let’s give the lyrics a try:

Oh, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Oh Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where you come from? Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where’d you come from? Bam-a-lam

Well, I come [unintelligable, maybe cross the channel?] Bam-a-lam

Well, I’m going to Texarkana. Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, what’s your number? Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, what’s your number? Bam-a-lam

Well, one hundred and fifty, Bam-a-lam

Damn hundred and fifty, Bam-a-lam

Oh lord, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Lordy, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Black Betty had a baby, Bam-a-lam

Black Betty had a baby, Bam-a-lam

And the damn thing’s crazy, Bam-a-lam

Damn thing’s crazy, Bam-a-lam

Now she put his head in gravy [?] Bam-a-lam

Now she put his head in gravy Bam-a-lam

Oh lord, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Lordy, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where’d you come from? Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where’d you come from? Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where’d you come from? Bam-a-lam

Black Betty, where’d you come from? Bam-a-lam

Oh lord, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Lordy, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Now the baby had blue eyes, Bam-a-lam

Now the baby had blue eyes, Bam-a-lam

Well, it must have been the Captain’s, Bam-a-lam

Well, it must have been the Captain’s, Bam-a-lam

Oh lord, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

Lordy, Black Betty, Bam-a-lam

 

There are some weird things. Like when she dips the kid’s head in gravy? Is that a way of saying she put some kind of poultice on him or maybe a plaster?

But I think the important thing here is that this is obviously not symbolic. The prisoners who sang this work song were singing about a white guard who had a child with a black woman, quite possibly through rape. If her number being 150 is supposed to tell us she’s a prisoner, then it’s a flat-out rape.

Now, obviously, black prisoners couldn’t tell white people that they were teasing their white guards about wanting to fuck black women. But shame on musicologists for striving to find any explanation other than the obvious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Not Everything is a Metaphor

  1. Now I’m thinking about the racism that kept the guards from seeing what was hidden in plain sight back in 19-whatever versus the racism that keeps the wikipedists from seeing it now. Different but the same.

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