Evolution Of A Folk Song

This traditional song ‘Black Betty’ was recorded by the folk singer Huddie Ledbetter in 1939, who is better known as Leadbelly, however it was actually recorded earlier by James ‘Iron Head’ Baker.  He sings this version a cappella and it is also commonly sung by laborers to pass the time while working.  In the different versions of this song ‘Black Betty’ that Leadbelly sang, it refers to various different things, like a prison wagon for transferring prisoners, a whip, a gun (a specific type of musket) and a bottle of whisky.  The song seems to have origins dating back to the 18th century.  In 1736, Benjamin Franklin published a book called The Drinker’s Dictionary which lists 228 phrases for being drunk and one of his phrases is “He’s kiss’d black Betty”.  This is where the bottle of whisky version of Black Betty would come into it.  The early versions of ‘Black Betty’ are African-American work songs, basically prison or slave songs that were sung by chain gangs.  Generally one person on the chain gang would sing the lines and then the rest of the gang would accompany him with the “bam-ba-lam” refrain.

The gun version of ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with the British made flintlock called the Brown Bess, although it is easy to see how the “bam-ba-lam” lyric can be associated with the sound of the gunfire.  The Brown Bess was the standard arm of the British soldier during the American Revolution, however Black Betty is actually related to an 18th-century marching cadence about a flintlock musket.  If Black Betty is referring to a musket, the child in the song is very likely referring to the musket ball, as the song lyrics “that child is wild” would mean that the musket ball didn’t always go where it should.  In 1934, John A. and his son Alan Lomax described the origins of “Black Betty” in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs.  A convict told them that Black Betty is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons and another prisoner named Doc ‘Big Head’ Reese stated that Black Betty was used by prisoners to refer to the ‘Black Maria’ which was the penitentiary transfer wagon.  Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt also recorded ‘Black Betty’ in December 1933 and he identified her as a specific woman and claimed that she was a real person.

Black Betty is the slang name given to the Queen of Spades in the card game Hearts.  In 1937, a year before he was murdered Robert Johnson recorded the song ‘Little Queen Of Spades’ which is a song about the spell of the mojo in a gambling woman.  ‘Black Betty’ is a great example of how a traditional folk song can evolve over time, as after the Leadbelly, Iron Head and Clear Rock recordings, this song laid dormant for over 30 years till Manfred Mann in 1972 with the Earth Band performed ‘Black Betty’ live for John Peel’s In Concert on the BBC.

Ram Jam was a short-lived band from New York City, and in 1977 ‘Black Betty’ was their only hit.  Their version of this song charted #7 in the UK and it went to #18 in the US.  Their ‘Black Betty’ is about a black woman from Alabama who has a wild child.  Ram Jam took some heat over this song, because some civil rights groups felt the lyrics were disrespectful to black women.  Ram Jam’s version of this song is driven by a powerful beat and an aggressive tempo, which makes this song get your heart beating faster.  Guitarist Bill Bartlett, the leader of Ram Jam, was also the leader of the Lemon Pipers, the Sixties psychedelic bubblegum group that played ‘Green Tambourine’.

Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Where the sun done gone.

The cap’in’ (captain) can’t hold ‘em (him or them)
Cap’in’ can’t hold ‘em
Cap’in’ can’t hold ‘em
The way I do.

Yes Addie gotta gold mine
Addie gotta gold mine
Addie gotta gold mine
Way above her knee.

Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Where the sun done gone.

walking
[I’s just] walking
[I’s just] walking
All day long.

been talking
[She’s] been talking
[She’s] been talking
Babe, all day long.

Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Looky looky yonder
Where the sun done gone.

Oh Black Betty, Bam da lam
Oh Black Betty, Bam da lam

Black Betty had a baby, Bam da lam
Black Betty had a baby, Bam da lam

Damn thing gone crazy, Bam da lam
Damn thing gone crazy, Bam da lam

Oh Black Betty, Bam da lam
Oh Black Betty, Bam da lam

Oh baby Black Betty, Bam da lam
Oh baby Black Betty, Bam da lam

Black Betty had a baby, Bam da lam
Black Betty had a baby, Bam da lam

Damn thing gone crazy, Bam da lam
Damn thing gone crazy, Bam da lam

Baby wasn’t none of mine, Bam da lam
Baby wasn’t none of mine, Bam da lam

Damn thing gone blind, Bam da lam
Damn thing gone blind, Bam da lam

Yeah Black Betty, Bam da lam
Whoa Black Betty, Bam da lam

Black Betty, Black Betty, Bam da lam
Black Betty, Black Betty, Bam da lam

Looky here, Black Betty, Bam da lam
Looky here, Black Betty, Bam da lam

Jump steady, Black Betty, Bam da lam
Jump steady, Black Betty, Bam da lam

Last Monday, baby I was arrested
[Lawd (Lord), lawd, lawd]

On Tuesday, I was locked up in jail
[Lawd, lawd, lawd]

On Wednesday, my child was attested
[Lawd, lawd]

On Thursday, [nobody’s gonna call my bail, ] here’s some mo’

Almost done, here’s some mo’(more)
Almost done, here’s some mo’
Almost done, [Lawd, lawd]

And I ain’t gonna, ain’t done, [ya’ll don’t gimme no bail]
[Lawd, lawd, lawd, lawd]

Last Monday, baby I went a’walking
[Lawd, lawd]

On Tuesday, I shot me a’dog
[Lawd, lawd, lawd]

On Wednesday, we was sittin’ down a’talking
[Lawd, lawd]

On Thursday, she pawned all of my clothes
[Lawd, lawd, lawd]

Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)

Black Betty had a child (Bam-ba-Lam)
The damn thing gone wild (Bam-ba-Lam)
She said, “I’m worryin’ outta mind” (Bam-ba-Lam)
The damn thing gone blind (Bam-ba-Lam)
I said “Oh, Black Betty” (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)

Oh, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)

She really gets me high (Bam-ba-Lam)
You know that’s no lie (Bam-ba-Lam)
She’s so rock steady (Bam-ba-Lam)
And she’s always ready (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)

Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)

She’s from Birmingham (Bam-ba-Lam)
Way down in Alabam’ (Bam-ba-Lam)
Well, she’s shakin’ that thing (Bam-ba-Lam)
Boy, she makes me sing (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty (Bam-ba-Lam)
Whoa, Black Betty
Bam-ba-lam

 

 

 

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