Black Betty

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"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] 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 whiskey, a whip, or a penitentiary transfer wagon.

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. In the British Army from the early 18th century the standard musket had a walnut stock, and was thus known (by at least 1785) as a 'Brown Bess'.[2]

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 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."[3][4] Other sources give the meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) as a liquor bottle.[5][6]

"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]

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.)

— 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 recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song.[8] 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".[9] 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."[10]

In an interview[11] conducted by Alan Lomax with a former Texas penal farm prisoner named Doc Reese (a.k.a. "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."

— 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).[12] 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 78rpm five-disc album entitled Negro Sinful Songs sung by Lead Belly.[13] 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.[14]

In 1968 Manfred Mann released a version of the song, arranged for a band, with the title and lyrics changed to "Big Betty", on their LP Mighty Garvey!. In 1972 Manfred Mann's Earth Band performed "Black Betty" live for John Peel's In Concert on the BBC, but this has not been publicly released.[15]

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)
Format7-inch single
GenreHard rock, blues rock, boogie rock
Length2:32 (single)
Songwriter(s)Traditional, Huddie Ledbetter

In 1977, the rock band Ram Jam—which included former Starstruck and Lemon Pipers guitarist Bill Bartlett—re-released an edit of the Starstruck recording of the song with producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry 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.[16]

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.[17] The level Castle Rock from the 2013 video game Rayman Legends is based on Ram Jam's version of "Black Betty".

Weekly charts[edit]

Chart (1977) Peak
Australia KMR 3
Canada RPM Top Singles 46
Ireland (IRMA)[18] 8
New Zealand[19] 8
UK 7
US Billboard Hot 100 18
US Cash Box Top 100 14

Year-end charts[edit]

Chart (1977) Rank
Australia 31
New Zealand[20] 34
UK 56
US Cash Box Top 100[21] 63


Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[22] Gold 400,000double-dagger

double-daggersales+streaming figures based on certification alone

Spiderbait version[edit]

"Black Betty"
Single by Spiderbait
from the album Tonight Alright
ReleasedFebruary 2004 (2004-02)
FormatCD single, Digital download
GenreHard rock, alternative rock
LabelUniversal Music (AUS), Interscope Records (US)
Producer(s)Sylvia Massy

"Black Betty" was the first single released from Spiderbait's album Tonight Alright, released in 2004. 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 1 on the ARIA Charts in May 2004, becoming Spiderbait's first number one single in Australia. The song also made an impression in the United States, reaching number 32 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart in November of the same year. "Black Betty" was also featured in the 2004 film Without a Paddle, the 2005 films Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous and Guess Who, the 2007 film The Condemned, the 2011 film Death Race 2, the trailer for the 2011 film A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, the 2017 film The Hitman's Bodyguard, episodes of Malcolm in the Middle and My Name Is Earl, and the Electronic Arts's game Need for Speed: Underground 2.

Chart performance[edit]

Weekly charts[edit]

Chart (2004) Peak
Australia ARIA Singles Chart[23] 1
US Billboard Mainstream Rock[24] 32

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".[25] 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]

"Black Betty"
Single by Tom Jones
from the album Mr. Jones
ReleasedNovember 2002 (2002-11)
FormatCD single
GenrePop rock
Producer(s)Wyclef Jean, Jerry Duplessis

Fleetwood Mac take-off[edit]

On Fleetwood Mac's 2003 album Say You Will, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham extensively quoted 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 HarperCollins, NY, 1992
  2. ^ "Brown Bess, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 29 April 2016.
  3. ^ Benjamin Franklin; William Temple Franklin; William Duane (1859). Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2. Derby & Jackson. p. 496.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-09-07. Retrieved 2009-01-01.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ 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."
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876, p. 12.
  8. ^ a b "Black Betty / James (Iron Head) Baker [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". 2011-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Cornelius, Steven. Music of the Civil War Era. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004) 216.
  11. ^ see The Land Where the Blues Began, 1st Edition, Alan Lomax, Pantheon Books, 1993
  12. ^ Richie Unterberger. "Deep River of Song: Big Brazos - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  13. ^ "Leadbelly Vol 1 1939–1940 - Document Records Vintage Blues and Jazz". 1940-06-15. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  14. ^ "Texas Folk Songs - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  15. ^ "Manfred Mann's Earth Band - Not Quite Overnight Sensations (pt 2)". Archived from the original on 2014-03-26. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  16. ^ Jancik, Wayne (1998). The Billboard book of one-hit wonders. Billboard Books. p. 371. ISBN 0823076229.
  17. ^ "Biography". 2014-10-24. Archived from the original on 2014-10-24. Retrieved 2017-05-10.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  18. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – Black Betty". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved November 18, 2018.
  19. ^ "NZ Top 40 Singles Chart | The Official New Zealand Music Chart". 1977-10-23. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  20. ^ "Top Selling Singles of 1977 | The Official New Zealand Music Chart". 1977-12-31. Retrieved 2016-07-26.
  21. ^ "Cash Box YE Pop Singles - 1977". Archived from the original on 2017-08-12. Retrieved 2017-02-02.
  22. ^ "British single certifications – Ram Jam – Black Betty". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 31 May 2019. Select singles in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Type Black Betty in the "Search BPI Awards" field and then press Enter.
  23. ^ Hung, Steffen. " - Spiderbait - Black Betty". Retrieved 2017-09-10.
  24. ^ "Spiderbait - Chart history | Billboard". Retrieved 2017-09-10.
  25. ^ Melamed, Kristen. "This "Betty" won't play anymore". Archived from the original (web reprint) on 2012-09-12. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
  26. ^ "Black Betty / Mose (Clear Rock) Platt [sound recording]:Bibliographic Record Description: Performing Arts Encyclopedia, Library of Congress". 2011-11-23. Retrieved 2014-03-25.
  27. ^ "Texas Folk Songs - Alan Lomax | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-07-18.
  28. ^ Jeff Burger. "Lots More Blues, Rags & Hollers - Koerner, Ray & Glover | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-07-18.
  29. ^ Rob Flanagan. "Mighty Garvey! - Manfred Mann | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-07-18.
  30. ^ Ned Raggett (1986-08-18). "Kicking Against the Pricks - Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved 2017-07-18.


  • 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]