Black Betty

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Black Betty"
Lead Belly Negro Sinful Songs album cover 1939.jpg
Song by Lead Belly
from the album Negro Sinful Songs
Released1939 (1939)
GenreWork song

"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]

There are numerous recorded versions, including a cappella and folk. The song was eventually, with modified lyrics, remade as a rock song by the American band Ram Jam in 1977. Subsequent recordings, including hits by Tom Jones and Spiderbait, retain the structure of this version.

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 bottle of whiskey, a whip, or a penitentiary transfer wagon.

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 between northern England and southern Scotland; it later became a euphemism in the backcountry areas of the eastern United States. 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."[2][3] Other sources give the meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) as a liquor bottle.[4][5]

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.[6]

John A. and Alan Lomax's 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs describes 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.)

— Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs. (1934; reprint, New York: Dover, 1994), 60-1

John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as "Iron Head") in 1934, almost one year after Iron Head performed the first known recorded performance of the song.[7] 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".[8] 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."[9]

In an interview[10] conducted by Alan Lomax with former Texas penal farm prisoner Doc "Big Head" Reese, 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."

— Wells, Robert V., Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History. (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2009) 156.

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

Early recordings (1933–1939)[edit]

The song was first recorded in the field by US musicologists John and Alan Lomax in December 1933, performed a cappella by the convict James "Iron Head" Baker and a group at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas (a State prison farm).[11] Baker was 63 years old at the time of the recording.

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 April 1939 for the Musicraft Records 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 78-rpm five-disc album entitled Negro Sinful Songs sung by Lead Belly.[12] Lead Belly had a long association with the Lomaxes, and had himself served time in State prison farms. Lead Belly was first recorded by the Lomaxes in 1933 when he was approximately 44 years old. John Lomax helped Lead Belly get the recording contract with Musicraft in 1939.


While Lead Belly's 1939 recording was also performed a cappella (with hand claps in place of hammer blows), most subsequent versions added guitar accompaniment. These include folk-style recordings in 1964 by Odetta (as a medley with "Looky Yonder", with staccato guitar strums in place of hand claps), and Alan Lomax himself.[13]

Singer Dave Ray of the folk-blues trio Koerner, Ray and Glover also recorded the song unaccompanied on their 1964 album Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers.

In 1968, Manfred Mann released a version of the song, arranged for a band, on their LP Mighty Garvey!, with the title and lyrics changed to "Big Betty". In 1972, Manfred Mann's Earth Band performed "Black Betty" live for John Peel's In Concert on the BBC,[14] this version was released in 2019 on the double CD / triple LP Radio Days Volume 4, which also contains an earlier rendition from 1971 under the title "Big Betty". The same musical arrangement but with a new lyric and altered vocal melody appeared on the Earth Band's second album Glorified Magnified as "Look Around", credited solely to drummer Chris Slade. A studio version of "Big Betty" was recorded at the same sessions but remained unreleased until the 40th Anniversary box set in 2011.

Ram Jam version[edit]

"Black Betty"
Black Betty Ram Jam.jpg
Single by Ram Jam
from the album Ram Jam
B-side"I Should Have Known"
ReleasedJune 1977 (1977-06)
Length2:32 (single version)
3:57 (album version)
Ram Jam singles chronology
"Black Betty"
"Keep Your Hands on the Wheel"
Music video
"Black Betty by Ram Jam" on YouTube

Bill Bartlett had been in the Lemon Pipers and then formed a group called Starstruck. While in Starstruck, Bartlett took Lead Belly's 59-second long "Black Betty" and arranged, recorded and released it on the group's own TruckStar label. "Black Betty" became a regional hit. Producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz in New York formed a group around Bartlett called Ram Jam. They re-released the song, and it became a hit nationally. The Ram Jam version was actually the same one originally recorded by Starstruck (albeit significantly edited to rearrange the song structure). The song became an instant hit with listeners, and reached number 18 on the singles charts in the United States and achieved more success in the UK and Australia reaching the top ten.

Both the Ram Jam and the Spiderbait versions appear in the 2005 film The Dukes of Hazzard, with the Ram Jam version also appearing on the soundtrack album.

Figure skating world champion Javier Fernández performed his short program to Ram Jam's version of "Black Betty" during the 2014–15 season, when he won his third European Championships title and his first World Championships gold medal.[15] The level Castle Rock from the 2013 video game Rayman Legends is based on Ram Jam's version of "Black Betty".

The song was remixed by Dutch DJ Ben Liebrand in 1989 as Rough 'n' Ready Remix and became successful, reaching number 13 in the UK as well as charting in several other countries.

It appeared twice in the season twenty episode of Family Guy, "Cootie & The Blowhard".

The song was used in the movie Kung Pow! Enter the Fist, during a fight between the hero and a villain who called himself Master Betty.[16]

Formats and track listings[edit]

7-inch (1977)

  1. "Black Betty" – 2:32
  2. "I Should Have Known" – 4:45

7-inch (1989)

  1. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12
  2. "Black Betty" (Original Version) – 3:56

12-inch (1989)

  1. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix) – 5:28
  2. "Black Betty" (Original Version) – 3:56
  3. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12

CD (1989)

  1. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12
  2. "Black Betty" (Original Version) – 3:56
  3. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix) – 5:28

CD (1989)

  1. "Black Betty" – 2:29
  2. "Let It All Out" – 4:00
  3. "High Steppin'" – 3:41
  4. "Hey Boogie Woman" – 3:09

12-inch (France, 1994)

  1. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix) – 5:28
  2. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12
  3. "Black Betty" (Version Courte) – 2:32
  4. "Black Betty" (Version Album) – 3:57
  5. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix) – 5:28
  6. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12
  7. "Black Betty" (Version Courte) – 2:32
  8. "Black Betty" (Version Album) – 3:57

CD (France, 1994)

  1. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix) – 5:28
  2. "Black Betty" (Rough 'n' Ready Remix – Edit) – 3:12
  3. "Black Betty" (Version Courte) – 2:32
  4. "Black Betty" (Version Album) – 3:57

CD (France, 1994)

  1. "Black Betty" (Version Courte) – 2:32
  2. "Black Betty" (Version Album) – 3:57



Region Certification Certified units/sales
Canada (Music Canada)[48] Gold 75,000^
Canada (Music Canada)[49]
Gold 20,000*
United Kingdom (BPI)[50] Platinum 600,000double-dagger

* Sales figures based on certification alone.
^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
double-dagger Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

Spiderbait version[edit]

"Black Betty"
Black Betty by Spiderbait.png
Single by Spiderbait
from the album Tonight Alright
  • "The Dog"
  • "In This City"
ReleasedMarch 15, 2004 (2004-03-15)
LabelUniversal Music Australia
Producer(s)Sylvia Massy
Spiderbait singles chronology
"Arse Huggin' Pants" / "Bo Bo"
"Black Betty"
"Fucken Awesome"

In 2004, Australian alternative rock band Spiderbait released a version of "Black Betty" as the lead single from their sixth studio album, Tonight Alright, on March 15. Produced by Sylvia Massy, this version is a slightly faster re-working of Ram Jam's hard rock arrangement. The song was a hit in Australia, reaching number one on the ARIA Singles Chart in May 2004, becoming Spiderbait's first number-one single in their home country. The song was released as Spiderbait's debut single in the United States on October 18, 2004, reaching number 32 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart in November of the same year.

At the ARIA Music Awards of 2004, the song was nominated for Highest Selling Single and Best Video.[51] Despite the song's success, Spiderbait's drummer, Kram, has considered their version of "Black Betty" a "fluke", as he wanted to perform three drum solos on the recording but was outvoted by the other band members.[52]

Track listing[edit]

Australian CD single (9816416)[53]
1."Black Betty" (edit) 
2."Black Betty" (extended version) 
3."The Dog" 
4."In This City" 



Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[59] 2× Platinum 140,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

Release history[edit]

Region Date Format(s) Label(s) Ref.
Australia March 15, 2004 (2004-03-15) CD Universal Music Australia [60]
United Kingdom August 16, 2004 (2004-08-16)
  • 7-inch vinyl
  • CD
Universal [61]
United States October 18, 2004 (2004-10-18) Interscope [62]

UNH controversy[edit]

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".[63] In 2006 UNH students started the "Save Black Betty" campaign. Students protested at the hockey games by singing Ram Jam's "Black Betty", wearing T-shirts with writing on the front "Save Black Betty" and 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.

Selected list of recorded versions[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolf and Kip Lornell, Published by HarperCollins, NY, 1992
  2. ^ Benjamin Franklin; William Temple Franklin; William Duane (1859). Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2. Derby & Jackson. p. 496.
  3. ^ "The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Volume II: Philadelphia, 1726 - 1757 -- Pennsylvania Gazette, 1736 - 1737". Archived from the original on September 7, 2008. Retrieved January 1, 2009.
  4. ^ 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."
  5. ^ 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."
  6. ^ Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876, p. 12.
  7. ^ a b "Black Betty / James (Iron Head) Baker [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". November 23, 2011. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Cornelius, Steven. Music of the Civil War Era. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004) 216.
  10. ^ see The Land Where the Blues Began, 1st Edition, Alan Lomax, Pantheon Books, 1993
  11. ^ Richie Unterberger. "Deep River of Song: Big Brazos - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
  12. ^ "Leadbelly Vol 1 1939–1940 - Document Records Vintage Blues and Jazz". June 15, 1940. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  13. ^ "Texas Folk Songs - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
  14. ^ "Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Not Quite Overnight Sensations (pt 2)". Archived from the original on March 26, 2014. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  15. ^ "Biography". October 24, 2014. Archived from the original on October 24, 2014. Retrieved May 10, 2017.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  16. ^ Kung pow black betty on YouTube
  17. ^ Kent, David (1993). Australian Chart Book 1970–1992 (illustrated ed.). St Ives, N.S.W.: Australian Chart Book. p. 246. ISBN 0-646-11917-6.
  18. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  19. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  20. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 5401a." RPM. Library and Archives Canada.
  21. ^ "The Europarade - 1976 to 1979". UKMIX Forums. Retrieved September 2, 2020.
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  23. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty" (in German). GfK Entertainment charts.
  24. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Black Betty". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  25. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – Ram Jam" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40.
  26. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  27. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty". Top 40 Singles.
  28. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty". Singles Top 100.
  29. ^ a b "Ram Jam: Artist Chart History". Official Charts Company.
  30. ^ "Ram Jam Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard.
  31. ^ "Cash Box Top 100 Singles – Week ending August 20, 1977". Cash Box magazine. Retrieved September 1, 2020.
  32. ^ Grant. "Every ARIA Top 100 Single in 1990". Retrieved September 1, 2020.
  33. ^ "Eurochart Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music & Media. Vol. 7, no. 11. March 17, 1990. p. IV. Retrieved September 2, 2020.
  34. ^ "Ram Jam – Black Betty [Remix"] (in German). GfK Entertainment charts.
  35. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Black Betty". Irish Singles Chart.
  36. ^ "[Remix&cat=s Ram Jam – Black Betty [Remix]"]. Top 40 Singles.
  37. ^ "Ram Jam Chart History (Dance Club Songs)". Billboard.
  38. ^ "Eurochart Hot 100 Singles" (PDF). Music & Media. Vol. 11, no. 35. August 27, 1994. p. 14. Retrieved September 2, 2020.
  39. ^ "Chart Log UK: The Rabble Army – RZA". Retrieved September 1, 2020.
  40. ^ "Top Selling Singles of 1977 | The Official New Zealand Music Chart". December 31, 1977. Retrieved July 26, 2016.
  41. ^ "Top 100 1977 - UK Music Charts". Retrieved September 2, 2020.
  42. ^ "Cash Box YE Pop Singles - 1977". Archived from the original on August 12, 2017. Retrieved February 2, 2017.
  43. ^ "Kent Music Report No 236 – 1 January 1979 > National Top 100 Singles for 1978". Kent Music Report. Retrieved January 8, 2022 – via
  44. ^ "AMR Top Singles of 1978". Retrieved September 2, 2020.
  45. ^ "Jaaroverzichten 1978". Ultratop. Retrieved September 2, 2020.
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  47. ^ "Jaaroverzichten - Single 1978". Retrieved September 2, 2020.
  48. ^ "Canadian single certifications – Ram Jam – Black Betty". Music Canada. Retrieved September 26, 2019.
  49. ^ "Canadian ringtone certifications – Ram Jam – Black Betty". Music Canada. Retrieved April 28, 2022.
  50. ^ "British single certifications – Ram Jam – Black Betty". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved December 15, 2021.
  51. ^ ARIA Award previous winners. "Winners by Award – Artisan Awards – Best Video". Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA). Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  52. ^ Eliezer, Christie (June 12, 2004). Williamson, Nigel (ed.). "'Fluke' Cover Takes Spiderbait to No. 1". Billboard. Vol. 116, no. 24. p. 53.
  53. ^ Black Betty (Australian CD single liner notes). Spiderbait. Universal Music Australia. 2004. 9816416.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
  54. ^ "Spiderbait – Black Betty". ARIA Top 50 Singles. Retrieved October 14, 2019.
  55. ^ "Spiderbait Chart History (Mainstream Rock Songs)". Billboard. Archived from the original on May 4, 2018. Retrieved March 4, 2023.
  56. ^ "ARIA Top 100 Singles for 2004". ARIA. Retrieved October 14, 2019.
  57. ^ "ARIA Top 20 Australian Singles for 2004". ARIA. Retrieved December 5, 2022.
  58. ^ a b "2009 ARIA End of Decade Singles Chart". ARIA. January 2010. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
  59. ^ "ARIA Charts – Accreditations – 2004 Singles" (PDF). Australian Recording Industry Association. Retrieved December 6, 2017.
  60. ^ "The ARIA Report: New Releases Singles – Week Commencing 15th March 2004" (PDF). ARIA. March 15, 2004. p. 27. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 6, 2004. Retrieved May 2, 2021.
  61. ^ "New Releases: Singles". Music Week. August 14, 2004. p. 29.
  62. ^ "Going for Adds" (PDF). Radio & Records. No. 1577. October 15, 2004. p. 17. Retrieved May 2, 2021.
  63. ^ Melamed, Kristen. "This "Betty" won't play anymore". Archived from the original (web reprint) on September 12, 2012. Retrieved March 19, 2008.
  64. ^ "Black Betty / Mose (Clear Rock) Platt [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". November 23, 2011. Retrieved March 25, 2014.
  65. ^ "Texas Folk Songs - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 18, 2017.
  66. ^ Rob Flanagan. "Mighty Garvey! - Manfred Mann | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved July 18, 2017.


  • Collins, Lewis. Historical Sketches of Kentucky. Cincinnati: James & Co. (1848).
  • Thornton, Richard H. (ed.). An American Glossary. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company (1912).

External links[edit]