Black Betty

Last updated
"Black Betty"
Lead Belly Negro Sinful Songs album cover 1939.jpg
Song by Lead Belly
from the album Negro Sinful Songs
Released1939 (1939)
Genre Work song
Label Musicraft
Songwriter(s) Traditional

"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, revitalized as a rock classic by the American band Ram Jam in 1977. Future recordings retain the structure of this version, including hits by Tom Jones and Spiderbait.

Meaning and origin

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 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)

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, but it has not been publicly released. [14]

Ram Jam version

"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)
Label Epic
Ram Jam singles chronology
"Black Betty"
"Keep Your Hands on the Wheel"
Music video
"Black Betty by Ram Jam" on YouTube

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.

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.

Formats and track listings

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



RegionCertification Certified units/sales
Canada (Music Canada) [46] Gold75,000^
United Kingdom (BPI) [47] Gold400,000Double-dagger-14-plain.png

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
Double-dagger-14-plain.png Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

Spiderbait version

"Black Betty"
Black Betty by Spiderbait.png
Single by Spiderbait
from the album Tonight Alright
ReleasedMarch 15, 2004 (2004-03-15)
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 (2004), on March 15, 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 one on the ARIA Singles Chart in May 2004, becoming Spiderbait's first number-one single in Australia. 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.

Spiderbait's "Black Betty" was used in the following films: Without a Paddle (2004), Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005), Guess Who (2005), The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), The Condemned (2007), Death Race 2 (2011), The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017), and Birds of Prey (2020). It was also used in episodes of Malcolm in the Middle and My Name Is Earl , and the games Need for Speed: Underground 2 and Gran Turismo 6 .

Track listing

Australian CD single (9816416) [48]
1."Black Betty" (edit) 
2."Black Betty" (extended version) 
3."The Dog" 
4."In This City" 



RegionCertification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA) [53] 2× Platinum140,000^

^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.

Release history

AustraliaMarch 15, 2004CD Universal Music Australia [54]
United StatesOctober 18, 2004 Interscope [55]

UNH controversy

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". [56] 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

"Black Betty"
Single by Tom Jones
from the album ' Mr. Jones'
ReleasedNovember 2002 (2002-11)
Genre Pop rock
Label V2
Songwriter(s) Traditional

See also

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