#13 – Black Betty – Lead Belly/Ram Jam
“She really get me high, you know that’s no lie.”
Manners can be interpreted differently. One tribe’s rude is another mob’s greeting. We recognise them as generally a good thing to have or exhibit, but often get it wrong. Done badly, we cringe or take offence. Done well, we’re put at ease, we smile and are made to feel slightly more human.
If you believe the internet, the ‘Black Betty’ of this legendary folk song’s title could refer to at least any of the following: a woman, a weapon; a whip; a drink; a drunk; a vessel for a drink; a means of transport. The Wikipedia entry is worth a visit for the claimed stories behind some of these. But from the exciting (The Lost Fingers) to the completely bizarre versions (Tom Jones, or ‘TJ’ as he is on here), and everything in between (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Meatloaf, Spiderbait, and so on), you can see it probably meant something different to each artist. And, like manners, all are generally well-intended but often don’t hit the mark, and likely to induce the odd cringe and grudge.
Whatever your interpretation – maybe an entry in Benjamin Franklin’s 1736 ‘Drinker’s Dictionary’, or a prison wagon – you only really need to listen to two versions: Lead Belly’s early recording and of course, Ram Jam’s seminal cover. Raw power linking the two, coming essentially from the singer’s comfort to just riff with a beat.
She’s From Birmingham
Why does something so simple make you feel more human? If you cross paths with a familiar face today and they’re rude to you, you’ll begrudge them for the rest of the day. If they have nothing materially important to say, but say it in the most endearing, fun way possible, you’ll take that with you always, that feeling of instant warmth and hope. These two versions – one will be familiar, the other maybe not – are everything you could want from an old drinker’s tale and a juiced-up rock cover.
They also, brilliantly, meant that most covers after these, sound like they’re either trying to out-rock Ram Jam or over-simplify Lead Belly, both of which are just, if not rude, impolite to say the least, and don’t work. Admittedly, Ram Jam’s track runs out of steam a bit but the near-pointless instrumental bridge before the finale can be excused. It serves simply to tee us up for another cracking, rocking verse to sign off with. Birmingham, Alabama has never been pronounced with more verve.
I’d be surprised if anyone didn’t have a smile on their face and a jig in their hips after just 90 seconds of listening to Ram Jam’s classic cover, and may even want to get Black Betty’d as a result.
Cover, imitate what you want. Interpret things however you please. But remember, mind your manners.
What I’m reading:
Jeffrey Eugenides, Fresh Complaint – a collection of short stories. Occasionally you come across prose so beautifully crafted it makes you wish you’d known about the author 10 years ago. Stories of characters we could easily have known, lives we could easily have lived, or wish we’d lived (or wished we hadn’t). ‘Baster’, the highlight for me, exemplifying Eugenides’ skill at handling dark and complex issues with humour and lightness of touch. Highly recommended.