Black Betty

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"Black Betty"
FormWork song, marching song, jody call
Original artistIron Head
Recorded byIron Head, Lead Belly, Ram Jam, Pumpjack, Manfred Mann, Ministry, Spiderbait, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Meat Loaf, Soil, Scooter, Melvins Tom Jones
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"Black Betty"
FormWork song, marching song, jody call
Original artistIron Head
Recorded byIron Head, Lead Belly, Ram Jam, Pumpjack, Manfred Mann, Ministry, Spiderbait, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Meat Loaf, Soil, Scooter, Melvins Tom Jones
"Black Betty"
Single by Ram Jam
from the album Ram Jam
B-side"I Should Have Known"
ReleasedJune 1977
Format45 rpm
GenreHard rock, blues rock
Length3:57 (Album version)
2:32 (Single edit)
Writer(s)Traditional, Huddie Ledbetter

"Black Betty" (Roud 11668) is a 20th-century African-American work song often credited to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter as the author, though the earliest recordings are not by him. Some sources claim it is one of Lead Belly's many adaptations of earlier folk material;[1] in this case an 18th-century marching cadence about a flintlock musket. There are numerous recorded versions, including a cappella, folk, and rock arrangements. The best known modern recordings are rock versions by Ram Jam, Tom Jones and Spiderbait, all of which were hits.

Meaning and origin[edit]

The origin and meaning of the lyrics are subject to debate. Historically the "Black Betty" of the title may refer to the nickname given to a number of objects: a musket, a bottle of whisky, a whip, or a penitentiary transfer wagon, as referenced in the following paragraphs:

Some sources claim the song is derived from an 18th-century marching cadence about a flint-lock musket with a black painted stock; the "bam-ba-lam" lyric referring to the sound of the gunfire. Soldiers in the field were said to be "hugging Black Betty". In this interpretation, the musket was superseded by its "child", a musket with an unpainted walnut stock known as a "Brown Bess".[2]

Other sources give the meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) as a liquor bottle.[3][4] In January 1736, Benjamin Franklin published The Drinker's Dictionary in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering 228 round-about phrases for being drunk. One of those phrases is "He's kiss'd black Betty."[5][6]

If Black Betty is referring to a musket, it is likely the child to which the song refers is a musket ball. "that child is wild" meaning the ball didn't always go where it should. "The child is blind" meaning it did not care who it hit friend or foe, "Black betty don't care" meaning the musket also doesn't care who is killed by its child, "that child ain't mine" meaning that the shooter can't be held responsible for the work of the bullet. This is supported by multiple descriptions of the use of the musket in the battlefield. During the Napoleonic/Russian campaign 1/4 of all French casualties were caused by the rear ranks shooting their own front ranks. The line "she's from Birmingham" also fits as the place where muskets were manufactured.

"Black Betty" used as an expression for a liquor bottle may ultimately owe its origin to the famous pretty black barmaid who worked at the notorious Tom King's Coffee House in Covent Garden, London, which opened in 1720.

In Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876, a short section describes wedding ceremonies and marriage customs, including a wedding tradition where two young men from the bridegroom procession were challenged to run for a bottle of whiskey. This challenge was usually given when the bridegroom party was about a mile from the destination-home where the ceremony was to be had. Upon securing the prize, referred to as "Black Betty", the winner of the race would bring the bottle back to the bridegroom and his party. The whiskey was offered to the bridegroom first and then successively to each of the groom's friends.[7]

David Hackett Fischer, in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), states that "Black Betty" was a common term for a bottle of whisky in the borderlands of northern England/southern Scotland, and later in the backcountry areas of the eastern United States.

In 1934, John A. and Alan Lomax in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs described the origins of "Black Betty":

"Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song." (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)[8]

John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as "Iron Head") in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song.[9] In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled "'Sinful Songs' of the Southern Negro", Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is "Black Betty".[10] Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war's end that "prisoners sang of 'Black Betty', the driver's whip."[11]

In an interview[12] conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka "Big Head"), Reese stated that the term "Black Betty" was used by prisoners to refer to the "Black Maria" — the penitentiary transfer wagon.

Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:

"As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as "Black Betty," though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners' backs, "bam-ba-lam."[13]

In later versions, "Black Betty" was depicted as various vehicles, including a motorcycle and a hot rod.

Black Betty is the slang name given to the Queen of Spades in the card game Hearts.

Early recordings, 1933–39[edit]

The song was first recorded in the field by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933, performed a cappella by the convict James Baker and a group at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas (a State prison farm).[14]

The Lomaxes were recording for the Library of Congress and later field recordings in 1934, 1936 and 1939 also include versions of "Black Betty". A notated version was published in 1934 in the Lomaxes book American Ballads and Folk Songs. It was recorded commercially in New York in 1939 for the Musicraft label by Lead Belly, as part of a medley with two other work songs: "Looky Looky Yonder" and "Yellow Woman's Doorbells". Musicraft issued the recording in 1939 as part of a 78rpm five-disc album entitled Negro Sinful Songs sung by Lead Belly.[15] Lead Belly had a long association with the Lomaxes, and had himself served time in State prison farms.


While Lead Belly's 1939 recording was also performed a cappella, most subsequent versions added a guitar accompaniment. These include folk-style recordings in 1964 by Odetta (as a medley with "Looky Yonder"), Dave "Snaker" Ray,[16] and Alan Lomax himself.[17]

In 1972 the British progressive rock group Manfred Mann's Earth Band performed the song live for John Peel's In Concert on the BBC, but this has not been publicly released.[18] In 1976 a Cincinnati band, Starstruck, recorded a rock version of the song with modified lyrics on the Truckstar label which had little success.

In 1977, the rock band Ram Jam—which included former Starstruck and Lemon Pipers guitarist Bill Bartlett—rereleased an edit of the Starstruck recording of the song with producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz under Epic Records. The song became an instant hit with listeners, as it reached number 18 on the singles charts in the United States and the top ten in the UK and Australia. At the same time, the lyrics caused civil rights groups NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality to call for a boycott.[19]

In 1990 dance remixes of Ram Jam's version made the top twenty of the US dance and UK charts and top thirty in Australia. Other notable artists such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1986) and Tom Jones (2002) have covered the song.

In 1992 remixer Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad used a riff from the Ram Jam single as a sample for a remix of Live's "Pain Lies on the Riverside". It was not until 1997 that the remix became commercially available.

In 2004, Spiderbait's re-working of Ram Jam's rock arrangement was a hit in Australia. The song, from their Tonight Alright album, was also used in the movie Without A Paddle and Electronic Arts's 2004 game Need for Speed: Underground 2.

In 2006 the University of New Hampshire administration controversially banned the playing of Ram Jam's "Black Betty" at UNH Hockey games. UNH Athletic Director Marty Scarano explained the reason for the decision: "UNH is not going to stand for something that insults any segment of society".[20] In 2006 the students of University of New Hampshire started the "Save Black Betty" campaign. Students protested at the hockey games by singing Ram Jam's "Black Betty", wearing t-shirts that were blue with white writing on the front "Save Black Betty" and white writing on the back "Bam-A-Lam", and holding up campaign posters at the game. The Ram Jam version was again played once at a UNH/UMaine hockey game on January 24, 2013 after a seven year hiatus.

Also in 2006, rock artist Meat Loaf did a version of this song for his 3 Bats Live tour.

In 2008 a franchise of bars first opened in New Jersey named "Black Betty's Saloon". One of the aspects of the franchise is the playing of various versions of the "Black Betty" song, which the barmaids dance to.[citation needed]

On May 15, 2011 a new version called "Black Betty (she gets me high)" by Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Travis Barker, Mick Mars and Sebastian Bach was world premiered on "Anything Anything with Rich Russo" on WRXP-FM in New York City. Additionally, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and The Melvins released a version on a split 7" single in 2011.

In the media[edit]






Sports theme[edit]

Selected list of recorded versions[edit]

Fleetwood Mac take-off[edit]

On Fleetwood Mac's 2003 album Say You Will, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham reworked the chorus of "Black Betty" for his song "Murrow Turning Over in His Grave," an attack on the contemporary news media. For the "Black Betty had a child" line, Buckingham substituted the name of the reporter Ed Murrow.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolf and Kip Lornell, Published by Harper Collins, NY, 1992
  2. ^ "The Brown Bess". Retrieved 2008-01-12. 
  3. ^ Thorton, An American Glossary, p. 66: "Black Betty. A spirit-bottle. Obs. The N.E.D. has Betty, 1725. They became enamored of blue ruin itself. The hug the "black Betty," that contains it, to their bosoms.—Mass. Spy, Oct. 31 [1827]: from the Berkshire American."
  4. ^ Collins, Historical Sketches of Kentucky, p. 163: "Pretty late in the night some one would remind the company that the new couple must stand in need of some refreshment; Black Betty, which was the name of the bottle, was called for and sent up the ladder."
  5. ^ Benjamin Franklin; William Temple Franklin; William Duane (1859). Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2. Derby & Jackson. p. 496. 
  6. ^ From the Writings of Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette 1736 - 1737
  7. ^ Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876, p. 12.
  8. ^ Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. (1934; reprint, New York: Dover, 1994), 60-1.
  9. ^ "Black Betty / James (Iron Head) Baker [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". 2011-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  10. ^ Lomax, John. "'Sinful Songs' of the Southern Negro," The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934) 177-87, quoted in William G. Roy, Reds, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Folk Music, and Race in the United States. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010) 110-1.
  11. ^ Cornelius, Steven. Music of the Civil War Era. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004) 216.
  12. ^ see The Land Where the Blues Began, 1st Edition, Alan Lomax, Pantheon Books, 1993
  13. ^ Wells, Robert V. Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History. (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2009) 156.
  14. ^ allmusic ((( Deep River of Song: Big Brazos > Overview )))
  15. ^ "Leadbelly Vol 1 1939–1940 - Document Records Vintage Blues and Jazz". 1940-06-15. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  16. ^ With "Spider" John Koerner and Tony "Little Sun" Glover on Lots More Blues, Rags, and Hollers (Elektra - EKL 267)
  17. ^ allmusic ( Texas Folk Songs > Overview )
  18. ^ "Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Not Quite Overnight Sensations (pt 2)". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  19. ^ Jancik, Wayne (1998). The Billboard book of one-hit wonders. Billboard Books. p. 371. ISBN 0823076229.
  20. ^ Melamed, Kristen. "This "Betty" won't play anymore" (web reprint). Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  21. ^ "Shanty Tramp (1967)". Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  22. ^ "Rayman Legends Castle Rock Footage". Nintendo Culture. 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  23. ^ "Black Betty / James (Iron Head) Baker [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". 2011-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 
  24. ^ "Black Betty / Mose (Clear Rock) Platt [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". 2011-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25. 


External links[edit]

Preceded by
"My Band" by D12
ARIA (Australia) number one single (Spiderbait version)
May 23, 2004 - June 6, 2004
Succeeded by
"F.U.R.B. (Fuck You Right Back)" by Frankee