Whoa Black Betty Bam-Ba-Lam


   The look is almost passé now I guess, having first appeared in hip hopdom more than twenty years ago, but I finally got around to divining its genesis and evolution.  They are surprisingly multifaceted and complex – sort of in the manner of a Freud portrait.  In a single picture he was remarkably able to “include more than one expression”.

  The provenance of a fashion statement that requires nearly continuous attention – the holding up of one’s trousers – must be profound I figured.  Had to have entered and then pervaded the collective unconscious of a sizeable segment of society before going mainstream.  (Ok tributary maybe.)

  Some suggest that the look arose first as boys and young men wore clothing several sizes too large because of hand-me-down affordability.  Or even more purposefully to denote the absence of a more senior male family member.  The sign of a deliberate assumption of responsibility.

  Unfortunately the assumption of a role for which one has had no model can lead to trouble.  The broad swaths ofAmericalargely bereft of meaningful fatherhood are characterized by strife, violence, and dead ends.  Many young men end up in detention of one sort or another.

  Prison garb is not bespoke.  No belts.  Thus if jumpsuits aren’t the standard issue, pants will sag.  Furthermore, exposed undergarments can be the analogue of a low cut dress.  Advertising.  Or even relate to some cultures’ particularly accoutered wives, though the tone of the message here a bit more harsh: “I’m someone’s bitch, touch me at your peril”.

  Not what you get at first glance is it?  Whole thing reminds me of the backstory of the folk song Black Betty one rendition of which you can listen to below.  My initial encounter with Ms Betty was during the pregame warmup to youngest daughter’s college soccer matches*.  More than rousing, it’s almost riotous. 

  The song was similarly employed in the pilot episode of the successful and award winning program Friday Night Lights; also the pilot of Eastbound and Down; the films Blow, Dukes of Hazzard, Miss Congeniality; many advertising campaigns, video games, and more.

  Some believe that the name first was used to refer to a certain flint-lock musket with the “bam BA lam” being onomatopoetic gunfire.  In his Drinker’s Dictionary Ben Franklin tells us that to have kissed Black Betty was to have had too much.  Inmate transfer vehicles have been called by that name.

  Father and son ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax found that Black Betty “was the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons”:

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty (bam-BA-lam)

She’s fromBirmingham(bam-BA-lam)

Way down in Alabam’ (bam-BA-lam)

Boy she makes me sing (bam-BA-lam)

Whoa, Black Betty


  No question but that she’d make me sing and the problem then would be how to find a way to kiss her while holding my pants up – all the way up – with both hands.

*Pertinent lyric: “Black Betty had a child – The damn thing gone wild” Those girls would every time come up smiling after mixing it up so fiercely they’d fall to the ground legs atangle.

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