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[2019-11-13] What Happened: "Black Betty" by Ram Jam

What Happened: 'Black Betty' by Ram Jam

11/13/2019 12:00 PM

In your life as a guitarist, you’ll occasionally be told that learning the music of others is not worth your time, and requires no true musicianship. Playing existing songs, they’ll say, will just teach you to parrot the styles created by other musicians without allowing you to express your own musical creativity. I’m here to say that this is only as true as you allow it to be. Playing an existing song can allow you an incredible amount of freedom to explore.

One of the oldest songs in the Rocksmith catalog (excluding the centuries-old music of Bachsmith) is “Black Betty.” The most famous recorded version remains Ram Jam's 1977 single, and this is the version featured in the game. But while the song is often attributed to depression era blues pioneer Lead Belly, it was already old when he encountered it, with roots stretching back to the 19th century.

The first known recording of the song was made by musicologist Alan Lomax at a Texas prison by in 1933:

For anyone familiar with the Ram Jam version, it is both instantly recognizable and radically different. There is no accompaniment, only voices. The call-and-response form in which a leader sings each line of the song with a chorus responding after each, is common in many folk traditions and is closely associated with African-American work songs of the 19th century.

Six years later, in 1939, we have Lead Belly recording his version of the song:

His performance is again acapella (sung without accompaniment), but the chorus is gone, with the entire performance given by a single vocalist. He does provide a bit of rhythm a single off-beat clap during each recitation of the “bam-a-lam” refrain.

Through the work of Lomax and other folk music evangelists, “Black Betty” made its way into the emerging mainstream folk music revival of the early 1960s. Here is Alan Lomax himself singing it in a folk style, now with guitar accompaniment:

The strummy guitar accompaniment provides a harmonic bed for the song, even introducing a couple of chord changes and instrumental ornamentation that aren’t even suggested in the original. This version has clearly been influenced by the Blues, R&B, and Rock ’n’ Roll styles that increasingly defined popular music through the 50s and 60s.

The song continued to be recorded in the folk style, taking on more rock trappings as the 60s progressed. It was again recorded by Manfred Mann (of “Blinded by the Light” fame) in 1968 as “Big Betty.”

Now the instrumental elements have nearly as much weight at the vocals; the guitar parts are riffy and bluesy. The harmony vamps on a steady, repeating VII-I movement during the vocal sections, but also diverges into extended harmonic digressions, each with its own harmonic logic. The texture is fairly constant, with most of the instruments playing most of the time. Manfred Mann would record a very different take on the song in 1972.

Ultimately, the song was picked up by a Cincinnati outfit known as Starstruck:

Here, nearly all the elements are in place. Starstruck would change some personnel and emerge a few years later as Ram Jam with a slightly pared-down version of “Black Betty” that would become incredibly influential. This version has come a long, long way from the Texas Prison Camp version!

The instrumental elements of the song get much more emphasis than the vocals, which are more like interludes here. The guitar parts are layered and adventurous. The texture varies greatly over the course of the song, thinning out during the singing, and becoming dense and complex during the instrumental breakdowns. The rhythms are highly syncopated (inspired by, but trickier than Lead Belly’s offbeat clapping). The song modulates between B minor, B Major, and D Major.

It’s an enormously complex and occasionally virtuosic performance, and it’s no wonder this has become the definitive version of the song. New covers of “Black Betty” continue to be produced from a wide variety of artists including Tom Jones, Spiderbait, and Meat Loaf, but now most tend to owe a lot to the Ram Jam version, including the big guitar hits during the verses and the distinctive guitar riff that becomes between them.

Each performance of the song we’ve looked at is distinctly a product of its time and place. Lead Belly, Lomax, Manfred Mann, and Ram Jam are bringing not only their own musical sensibilities, but those of their larger cultural milieu to the table in interpreting the song. Each performance comes from each individual brings to that song on that occasion. You’ll find this in your own playing too. The way you play today isn’t the way you’ll play tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now.

Jarred McAdams joined the Rocksmith team in 2011. He studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and hold a Master's degree in composition from Mills College. Jarred has served as a composer, performer, writer, and video producer for a wide variety of artistic and commercial projects and has worked on a number of music game franchises since 2008.

""Lead Belly, National Press Club, Washington D.C." by William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress is in the public domain.

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