Black Betty: On the Use of Metaphor in Blues, or: The Oldest Hook in the Book

May 7, 20130 Comments

I originally started this article with the intention of delving into the history of the song Black Betty. I wanted to trace its murky origins to back when it was a field holler, first recorded by Iron Head Baker and made famous in the above-linked medley released by Lead Belly in 1939. Numerous versions of Black Betty have popped up since, notably Ram Jam’s huge (and only) hit and the more recent Australian band Spiderbait’s banjolin/drum machine… release… hit… thing. During the process of researching the subject however, I soon felt this route had been travelled to its inevitable conclusion countless times already: no one really knows for certain what the song is about.

The various interpretations touted by armchair music historians are fascinating and diverse. Here are a few popular wild guesses at meanings:

  • An old flintlock rifle with a black headstock. The internet seems to think the child would be Brown Bess, but I remember hearing somewhere the child was a bullet fired.
  • A bottle of whiskey, as recorded by Ben Franklin in 1827 (he’s kiss’d black Betty).
  • A prison guard’s bull whip.
  • The prison transfer wagon, or possibly a combination of this and the whip.
  • A an actual person, i.e. a prostitute, slave, troublesome significant other, etc.
  • Heroin, speed, or some other type of drug.

And while I’d love to go around picking up examples and attempting to draw conclusions, CocoJams has already done a stellar job collecting and analyzing various versions of the text, and there’s no way I could do the job half as well as they have. My article would have ended up simply plagiarizing theirs, a sure sign it’s better I just don’t write it in the first place. So go read up and listen to some wonderful versions and then head back here. I’ll wait.

…Great. So then I started to pull back a bit and research double meanings in the blues in general. This, I would say, was fruitful, in the same way someone looking to bait their hook stumbles into a warehouse full floor-to-ceiling with cans of worms. As it turns out, not only is the double entendre prevalent in early blues songwriting, but you make a strong case for defining one as the other. It seems the entire purpose of the blues was appearing to sing about one thing while really singing about another. Take for example this outstanding 1927 article written by Guy B. Johnson, one of those saints of early twentieth century social anthropology who recognized the influence of African culture as the revolutionary tour de force it was. Johnson made a career of interviewing and cataloguing early black American culture (including publishing the oldest known printed version of the ballad of John Henry, which is incredible) and in this article shines a light on the rift between two musical traditions in which language plays a noticeably different role.

Guy Johnson’s article focuses only on double meanings as pertaining to sexual acts and body parts, which admittedly makes up for the majority of double meanings in blues. This being the case, I’ve always personally thought of Black Betty as a flintlock rifle and a prostitute (or some generic troublesome woman) at the same time. Even if the song did used to be just about a rifle, eventually some folks got clever and made it about whatever they wanted, but left the old verses in too. It’s just a guess really, but I do so with millennia of folk songs to back me up. Even in present day, if you look at, oh I don’t know, Daft Punk’s Harder Better Faster Stronger, it’s a a mostly aesthetic lyric about working hard to produce music. Kanye’s version Stronger keeps the same chorus, but re-contextualizes it as simultaneously being about sex and the state of the music industry by adding his own words around the originals. Pop music is contemporary folk music, and folk music has been constantly undergoing this process since the first time someone less talented heard someone else’s really good chorus and ran with it.

We can then draw the conclusion that Black Betty is probably about at least three things at the same time. The multiple allegory is distinctly made possible by the ambiguity of the lyrics. Had the subject matter been specifically stated (“Whoa-ah, Black Betty, the flintlock musket / Whoa-ah Black Betty, she performs really well in wartime if you oil her / Bam-ba-lam”), we would never have heard of her. The direct relationship with metaphor is as important to the blues as the twelve-bar structure.

We’ve come a long way since Guy B. Johnson’s initial publications, and most people nowadays can probably figure out what “black snake moan” means without too much mental strain. There are even exhaustive online dictionaries that can interpret certain blues terminology for those of us that don’t quite speak the blues but are interested in the culture. Who hasn’t heard the terms mojo, shimmy, son of a gun, and so forth. Blues lyricists were American Shakespeares, in the sense that we all use the terms without realizing where they come from. It’s a lovely example of adversity giving rise to excellent poetry, due in this case to the necessity of hiding one’s true intentions.

One of the most important points evident in the Johnson paper and the online dictionary is that many (if not most) terms had two or more interpretations. There are so many hidden meanings that have nothing to do with sex (killing floor, crossroads, etc.) and I think it’s a bit dismissive. It’s so easy to repeatedly answer the question “What’s this song about?” by simply saying “It’s about sex, duh.” They’re basically all about sex on some level. That doesn’t answer the question. The reason certain songs seem to last and get covered over and over again is because there is, as Jack Lemmon used to say, a method under the mattress. And that lasting quality is what I’d like to cover in the next section of this post.

Okay, here we go. One of the most important parts of popular music is memorability. Here are some surefire ways to get people to remember your lyrics:

  1. Rhyming. Everyone knows this. Humans have been rhyming for thousands of years, in order to help
    bards remember really long epic tales of heroics and the people to remember which religion is the best. The less non-rhyming words between the ones that rhyme the better. (Note: this also explains Eminem.)
  2. Alliteration. When you know what letter the next word starts with, you have a big head start on remembering
    what it is.
  3. Interesting words. The more you have boring words like if/the/and/is/what/that/so/etc., the more extraneous material you have around your deeply meaningful words, the more syllables, notes, non-rhyming nonsense someone has to keep in their head.
  4. Surprise. People will be more likely to remember your lyrics if they’ve never heard those words combined
    before. This is a tricky one, because if your words are completely unassociated they won’t merge as a cohesive unit, and then no one will care anyway.

What I’m describing here, of course, is a hook. It’s a gray area, but somewhere between Virgil and Tears For Fears (“Shout” is still the shortest, catchiest hook ever written, runner up only to “Shout” by the Isley Brothers) lies the line at which prose becomes poetry becomes lyrics becomes a hook. And from the standpoint of songwriting, “Black Betty” is at least three of those things.

Even in terms of song structure, Black Betty follows the cardinal rule of songwriting as laid out for us by Dave Grohl, taking inspiration from Roxette: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus! So let’s look at Black Betty:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Holy crap, folks. Look at that line, knowing what we know now. Just stare at it. Bask in its beauty. It’s technically not a chorus, though, it’s a refrain. So the full chorus goes like this:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Black Betty, Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

My god. This is literally the greatest chorus, built off the greatest refrain, which features the greatest hook, ever written, sung, or stared in awe at by jaded bloggers. Let’s look at that first word.

Whoa-oh!

An extension of “whoa”, the mantra of Keanu Reeves and excited everypersons everywhere since the beginning of time, the exclamation could be that of celebrating friends at a barrelhouse, or just before one tumbles through tempests on a high seas adventure, or just before climaxing with the greatest lover you’ve ever seen or will see. Who is that lover? Perhaps…

Black Betty!

Maybe you’re at war, and all that’s keeping you alive is your flintlock, spit-shined to a sheen of coal black steel, or maybe she really is that woman to whom you can’t say no, and ain’t that woman just like a bottle of rye? In this life, you give up the woman for the whiskey or the other way around, but either way Black Betty’s gonna getcha.

Bam-ba-lam!

Talk about surprise! Here we were just talking about Betty, when BAM! Ba-LAM! Do you even realize, one paragraph up, how hard it was to type “Black Betty” but not follow it with its 150 year-old onomatopoeic successor? Since the mid-1800s, people have been following Betty with the explosions, and it feels wrong to separate the two for the purposes of this post even for that brief paragraph. Two pairs of Bs on repeat (all the alliteration you want) and not a single extraneous preposition among them. Here’s another incarnation of the chorus:

Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam
Jump steady Black betty, Bam-ba-lam
Whoa-oh, Black Betty, Bam-ba-lam

Jump steady! Boy, what a rhyme, and what an exciting phrase, both challenging and gratifying at the same time. Did that phrase even exist before it was laid out here? It seems perfectly about a gun here, doesn’t it? What more would we want than to have a nice clean kickback upon firing. Far better than the damn thing gone crazy. But when we ask her to shake that thing, maybe she’s shaking something she’s shooting at, but more likely she’s shaking her ya-ya, or if she isn’t we’d strongly like her to. The subject matter is sexy, a little racy, or maybe violent… in other words, this short little piece of music is its own little self-contained Hollywood blockbuster, practically already in negotiations with Michael Bay’s people for the summer time slot.

I could go on writing like this about Black Betty (which you may have gathered is a personal favorite) for days. It’s not that the song as a whole has some particular meaning that I or countless others are drawn to. The point is that each phrase/word/sound/syllable/phoneme has so many levels of enjoyment and meaning that the listener is free to attach whichever specific, personal association they choose. What’s more, the concept of “the hook” has always been a folk staple, but in the marriage of African rhythmic sensibility and European harmonic language, America gave birth to the pop genre which would eventually rule the world. Black Betty is one of the prime relics of the birth of the American chorus.

By writing songs in an environment that forced musicians to avoid specifics in favor of metaphor and coded language, the blues repertoire was able to convey deep sorrow, frustration, and heartache in a more universal manner than previously possible, thus infusing the cross-cultural charm that allowed the blues to break across borders and be translated into endlessly diverse genres, a process that continues to this day. While Buddy Guy may give a frankly bleak outlook on the future of blues as a distinct format, he refers more to the aesthetic than to the tradition. In a hundred years, whatever music sounds like at the time, whatever instruments technology will have given us, rest assured they will be using them to record yet another cover of Black Betty, one of the oldest and greatest hooks ever written.

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