Leadbelly-"Black Betty"

Jan
17

RagtimeDorianHenry | April 15, 2009
" Black Betty "
by LEADBELLY
= = = = = = = = =

The " RED HOT BLUES " (1925-1945)

****
Warning: There is mild profanity in this song. (the word "dam") Although Jambalayah.com usually does not showcase songs the include any profanity, because of the folkloric value of this song, I've made an exception in this case.

Click http://www.jambalayah.com/node/1019 for a YouTube video sound file of the earliest recorded version of "Black Betty" by James Iron Head Baker -(1933)

Also, click http://www.justsomelyrics.com/815138/leadbelly-Black-Betty-Lyrics and http://www.hotlyrics.net/lyrics/L/Leadbelly/Look__Looky_Yonder_Black_Bet... for versions of the lyrics to Leadbelly's "Black Betty".

1 comment

webmaster

Selected viewer comments from http://www.youtube.com/comment_servlet?all_comments=1&v=sYrK464nIeY&page=2

Posted in 2010

Amazing

Thats all i can say tbh lol just amazing

love it
-apollo112

****
Its sad how so many people have no idea that Lead Belly recorded this song first.
-DimesonProductions

****
Second. John Lomax recorded a group of prisoners led by James Baker for the library of Congress in 1933. Lomax recorded this Leadbelly version 3 years later.

The James baker recording is posted on the blindboyblue channel.
-blindboyblue

****
Oh my goodness, this is awesome.
-mangeldeth

****
Awesome song he recorded back then. Too bad he did not get all the credit for it. not much people know he recorded it.
-Rennwill

****
I love this guy!!!! Top stuff - this must be one of the most covered songs in the world... I give upmost respect to this man!
-bertoman94

****
the only sad thing about this song is that this man,this genius didnt get any credit 4 this song what so ever,not that what ram jam or spiderbait did was wrong i just feel like this is,well beautiful
-cjdb47

****
he got credit, its just that ram jams version is the more popular one because it is better.
-gsboss

****
i disagree somewhat,i see more feeling in this one,i like ram jam,and i really like their cover of the song i just think this ones better
-cjdb47

****
im not even going 2 say anything,its people like u that r the reason that this song didnt get much credit,u obviously hav no understanding of the blues
-cjdb47

****
i guess not although i like some newer blues like 70s-present SRV For example
-seifs4

****
Not talking about those blues, the old blues during their time where it was treated as "Devil Music". Also in the 1930's they had what three or four instruments no electric guitars, or bass. This is better by far it's easier to hear the words than the music blocking it out. I like Ram Jam's version but the Original is always best.
-Tojo89

****
shhhhh, respect this man.

just listen to the music

and enjoy
-arexthetrex

****
This is a prison work song from the southern United States, as sung by prisoners working in cotton or sugar cane fields, on "corduroy" roads or realigning railroad tracks. Leadbelly is a direct source. In his prime (1920's-'30's), in prison, he led crews because he could work harder, sing louder than and/or beat anybody else up besides.  He sings a cappella here, some years later, for authenticity; ganged prisoners carried tools, not musical instruments.
-jamesdv54

****
"Black Betty" is coded language for the kind of whip prison overseers carried. It is also a figure of speech for the overseer himself. The whip was braided leather but with free fringes at the end. Ouch! That hurts. The language about looking here and there and "Betty" turning her back concerns warning of the overseer's approach or signalling his distraction or retreat. The language about how repulsive Black Betty's babies are makes fun of overseers' ignorance of worksong meanings.
-jamesdv54

****
what a comment ! thanks
-RagtimeDorianHenry

****
Thanks so very much for the comment on the song. I love House Music and first heard the song yrs ago and thought of it as nothing more than a great dance tune. Your explanation makes a great song even more meaningful. Again, thanks for the History lesson. I will pass the knowledge on.
-denisehenderson

****
Actually, thats debatable. In the 18th century, field guards had a black flintlock rifle, which was nicknamed the "Black Betty". The bam-ba-lam could easily be interpreted as the gun shot. Then again, that definition is more acceptable in the Ram Jam cover of this song.
-Darkflame57

****
Yeah, I think you are right. But the Spiderbait music video of this was talking about a car.
2good116
****
i never known that because it describes a girl
-elefantboys

****
Definitely more soulful that Ram Jam or Spiderbait. Good song, none the less
-FeastyBeasty

****
True, but there's nothing wrong with covering a song in a new style and keeping it alive. I suspect a very large number of people first heard this song through the Ram Jam version. If some of those people were led to discover Lead Belly as a result, that's great.
-Tycho114

****
This was the earliest Leadbelly recording of this song. He made more rerecordings of this tune this time with guitar.
-WarHero56

****
Yea, its weird that hes not playing guitar, because afaik, he is well know for early guitar chops.
-bpabustan 1 year ago

****
was this really the original? even before ram jam's version? they changed it a lot.
-smashballbrawler

****
No, this song was around long before Leadbelly recorded it.  He didn't write it any more than he wrote the Rising Sun Blues. A lot of his material, including this, is adapted from folk tunes which were popular in his time and before.
-matthewmichaelbritt

****
its amazing how many modern songs are by leadbelly. Im a massive blues fan, but i only realised that "where did you sleep last night" that Nirvana did on there unplugged album is by leadbelly!
-Sgreen324

****
Finding the writer of this song is near impossible. Like jgruen1066 said James Baker was a convict he knew the song because it was a very popular chain gang( convicts who were chained together in prison back before the 1950's) song.
-animangaman690

****
i love tracking down all the versions of a song this is the 1st time i've heard this one im used to the spiderbait version but this is cool it just needs some music old blues guitar or something
-weirdmusicmixmaster

****
Of course - Ram Jam made this song popular and did a fine job. Meatloaf puts soul into it.
-jgruen1066

****
This is not the first version - nor did Lead Belly write this.

"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 (also known as Iron Head) and a group at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas"

If you ask me - Meat Loaf does the best version besides the 1933 recording (which you can find on YouTube).

Tom Jones tried, not good. Spiderbait? Not good.
-jgruen1066

****
this is like a field holler. hard to trace

the origin.
-bigkittysmile

****
Its the closest thing to the original. If any of the artists that covered this worked 5 min on a chain gang, they'd have a breakdown.

Leadbelly was real.
-mz3r2t

****
Although this tune is attributed to Leadbelly, he was not the first to record it. The original recording is by James Iron Head Baker and group in 1933 - eight years before Leadbelly did his. Still the lyrics are though to have been originated in the 1800s during the American Civil War.
-bpabustan

****
True. The point I was making is that Leadbelly was not covering a Ram Jam song. Rather that this was the 'original' as far as recording history goes. However I did not know that there was an even earlier recording, thanks for pointing that out.
-Dstraitjacket

****
original black betty. the other versions are real good too. specialy spiderbaits and jam rams
-benj347

****
sorry to correct you benj347, the original is from prison, where some prisoners sang it...
-IRockUrRockNRoll

****
Actually Irockurrocknroll, the original version was an old slave chant during slavery in the united states.
-mahwahevo

****
This great song still lives on today!
-MinMan913

****
Rap music is just a modern version of what our ancestors have always done. Including our ancestors in the land called Africa. Rap musicians today used the language that they are accustomed to, just like Leadbelly used what he was accustomed to.
-brnman04

****
please, dont insult the Music by calling it "rap". lol jk
-submissivelover 1

****
@submissivelover This is a pure rap song, just done in slow time
-neverindoubt

****
From WIKIPEDIA: The origin and meaning of the lyrics are subject to debate. 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 rifle was superseded by its "child", a rifle with an unpainted walnut stock known as a "Brown Bess".
-Tekibum

****
Leadbelly and Robert Johnsons' songs are a few of my biggest inspirations as a guitarist (I know this is a vocal piece but...) the notes they play and the emotion they convey through the blues scale are incredible. I'm 19 years old myself, but if raw talent like this was available to me today I'd be their best customer. Absolutely stunning.
-CloudNine9136

****
Agreed. Johnson was one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and Leadbelly's songs are just incredible. It's good to hear others in our age group can appreciate this music!
-valhallasend

****
i luv seeing how music evolves. it starts with lead belly, to ram jam, to spiderbait. from there, it doesnt stop either.

what am i saying? thank god for the originals like lead belly.
-nzephier

****
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." Sometime before the Civil War of 1812 I'd say. My source is Wiki.
-Kohl93

****
That's interesting. A good study for sure. What ever is the reality it is a "work song"
-rfw45

****
I loved this. It's great to see how different versions of songs like this evolved/morfed through different generations. This is ONE thing the internet is good for. Being able to quickly and easily locate and enjoy historical versions of different songs. A musical history lesson.
-friedmarlin5

****
I'm glad you said that. It's so true. How many "Rock" musicians have been using the blues for a spring board for years? That's a good thing though. The Stones, Clapton, The Animals, the list is endless. It's great to be able to see where all of this comes from. Personally, when it comes to the blues, I've always been more of a Lead Belly fan than the more "accepted" Robert Johnson. But I like your point about the internet. That statement is true on so many levels.
-rfw45

****
that clap sound.. is he spanking black betty while hes singing? -.-
-vikingablod1016

****
@vikingablod1016 black bettys a gun
-blacksheep77

****
One of the prisoners being interviewed by John Lomax also said it was the black transfer wagon that would clunker past them working. Probably because if this is true meaning, they couldn't have said it in front of the guard
-JohnyBlaze86aimz

****
Again, I absolutely love this. It's perfect with just Leadbelly and some clapping. He doesn't even need a guitar to create real haunting blues. It's just so real, raw, and perfectly flawed.
-Jaycue24

****

come on - what rhythm is he clapping to?
-bongochris

****
the down beat!!!!
-TheGroupiemom

****
@bongochris He's clapping in time. Rhythm is the pulse of the music, which is still present in vocal singing like this. Just because there's no drums or other instruments, doesn't mean there's no rhythm.

He's clapping on the upbeat of 3. 1-2-3 Clap 4, 1-2-3 Clap 4.
-cajunbander

****
His timing is near perfect in this song!!!!!
-philipvino

****
This man is hands down one of the biggest legends of all time. The clapping to the down beat, amazing. If you don't know Leadbelly, you don't know Blues.
-Spartan10501

****
'cause the roots of rock are the blues and gospel.
-TheGroupiemom

http://www.youtube.com/comment_servlet?all_comments=1&v=sYrK464nIeY&page=1

Posted in 2010

what rhythm is he clapping to? i cant finding is so... weird
-mellisos2m

****
In the intro he is jammin' a bit

about a minute in he seems to establish the 1 (first down beat of the measure) - he claps on the off beat, not the down beat.

Then I start counting, and the rhythm seems to be this:

one and two AND three and four and

the clap being on the "AND"

that's what I hear...it's not 100% on
-marksberglund

****
Yeah, the clap is on the and of 3.
-holyswordsmanoffaith

****
I always heard that "Black Betty" referred to a whip that was used for punishment in prison.
-coyoteguy45

****
I cant believe how much power he puts into

this song just by singing and slapping his

leg. This is truly the essence of the blues.
-MrSmokeydog

****
Super great, for all blues lovers this is a gem.
-jjmiphoto

****
A Black Betty was a car that was made of steal that chain gangs were put into to haul to the work areas. It had no windows and was painted black so it was always hot inside. It was pulled by horse and guards walkd beside it....This song was first recorded by Ironhead in a Texas Farm prison in 1933 Then recorded by leadbelly in 1934 with a few lyric changes.
-putz1113

****
@putz1113

Actually the song Black Betty predates cars and goes back to the time of the Buffalo soldier. Just like the British musket the "Brown Bess," the soldiers latter on called their rifles "Black Bettys" and the "ready rock-steady" part was aiming, and the "bam the lam" part was shooting the rifle...

It was later applied to other things like police vans and such. They just would rework the song for the times..
-Lagomort

****
@Lagomort I agree with your larger point that "Black Betty" probably referred to different things at different times. However, regarding "police vans", the term was "Black Maria".
-Azizip17 [Posted in 2011]

****

But the Wikipedia page on this song includes this quote: "In an interview 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." end of quote
Also, Lead belly sometimes referred to Black Betty as a woman.These lyrics found online: "Black Betty had a baby..Bam da lam... Baby wasn’t none of mine, Bam da lam."
Azizip17 [Posted in 2011] http://www.hotlyrics.net/lyrics/L/Leadbelly/Look__Looky_Yonder_Black_Bet...

@putz1113 Southerners have been calling whisky Black Betty since they came over from the old country.
-pinkmichelefloyd

****
just about every good rock band covered leadbelly. from led zepplin to nirvana
-IAMELEMENT999

****
Man - I love Leadbelly - but only found a few things of his and I never knew this was his song. Holy crap. This is the first time I looked up any of his stuff online...I just grabbed what I could find in record shops till I stopped looking.
-HeyJaw

****
With that being said - I still like the Ram Jam version better and this one. That's it.
-HeyJaw

****
get funky wit it!!!
-abacazabaca

****
thanks for posting this jewel!
-charly9927

****
Regarding the gun reference ... I thought "Brown Bess" was "Black Betty's" child.

Also, in Revolutionary times, Black Betty could refer to a bottle of booze. But due to the "Bam a Lam" and the "Jump Steady" in this song, my money is on the gun meaning.
-MrPinksBane

****
actually he didnt' even write this though some credit him as the writer the song is a folk song going back a lot further and even recorded by others before him, however he was the first famous recording of it. Still it's a great version by a legend. it's a folk song not rap, if you think it's rap then by that defnition most songs would be considered rap since almost all songs are derived from folk roots :P
-shadowowl1

****
who cares if it's classified as rap or not? if Jay-Z would record this (and nobody would have hear dof this before) people would call it rap. People are to busy putting things in boxes, and not just enjoying music as an art all together.
-freahaandrikman

****
I honesty did not know that Leadbelly recorded this song. So much for me being a big blues fan. Proves that we are never too old to learn something new.
-FLUSEM666

****
Great song. You''ve gotta love Leadbelly.
-hazybasementmusic

****
Not wanting to run on, but I usually do, having read several pages of comments about "Rap" and "Lady Gaga" etc the way i see it is this, some people like red jumpers, some like blue, and some like green, and some people, well they just do not like jumpers! music is a bit this way, we all have our favourite jumper, lol. I like most people have my favourites, I play Bass in a band, my 17 yr old son plays Guitar in a band, we play totally different styles of music, but the fact is we both enjoy it!
-crappyfatbassplayer

****
Ok, no "jumpers" this time, last night we went to a club and watched a number of artists, among them a young couple "rapping" not my preferred style, but you have to give them credit, they were good, and they enjoyed what they were doing! there was also a young man who did a cover of Leadbelly "where did you sleep last night" which encouraged me to refresh my memory on this piece of musical history, hence being on you tube this morning. The young man was super talented, and truly superb!
-crappyfatbassplayer

****
...is Lead Belly really a BLUES legend? He was made famous for work songs...which aren't Blues, really...
-lyprov

****
@lyprov Maybe you should check the origins of blues.....for a big part it WAS work songs.....the Africans weren´t shipped to the States for charity ya know....Blues was also made to relief the pain and injustice that was (is still) done to these people.
-Ojoe2010

****
I like. I like alot, how did I not know of Lead Belly until now?!
-1kofox

****
@1kofox There are a few reasons. He died in 1946, so it is safe to say his race precluded him from widespread mainstream acceptance. Also, while he was prolific musician, he was not a prolific recorded musician. He only recorded three albums. Recording cost money, and if you got money, you ain't got the blues. :)
-rjs01007

****
This song was traditional in the south, with many versions in many styles of music with varying lyrics . It was not written by Ledbelly and this version has very few lyrics. A Black Betty- sometimes Brown Betty was a whip used in prisons and on chain gangs.
-r5t9m0

****
so disappointing that this song has been absolutely trashed and ruined by more recent metal bands including spiderbait and meat loaf. this is far far better. soul
-thesacco94

****
Editor: The following comment is edited because of jambalayah's no profanity policy]

Did some idiot call this rap????

This man has a melody, heart and soul to his vocals.

He is a musician and a singer!

Rap is nothing but no-talent... from people who can't sing or play.
-robonez

****
@robonez: Two points: 1) Yes, Lead Belly (< how he himself spelled it) was a gifted artist, no doubt about that. 2) Of course is rapping an art form, and one that predates hip hop music by centuries. Simply because you deem something unworthy of being art doesn't make it so.
-kubik0815

****
@Fabso69 Don't misunderstand me. I'm not blaming anyone for liking any music. I just find it frustrating that rap is routinely dismissed and belittled for exactly the same reasons people dismissed blues. It seems to me that there is a racial element to this. I'm white by the way. All I did was point out the similarities between this music and rap. Some folk actually seemed to be offended by this observation and called me an idiot etc. It seems to me that this is more than a debate about music.
-harveytg

****
Sorry to cause such a heated debate. It's amusing to me how white people only start to appreciate black music when the musicians concerned are safely cold in the grave. I made an observation that this is a kind of rap music and people started reaching for their shotguns! I have also read some profoundly ignorant dismissals of Hip Hop and Rap. Sure, most of it is either too commercial or forgettable. Isn't that true of any genre? Can't you see ANY connection between this and Rap?
-harveytg

****
You people need to calm down every music has soul and feeling and soul in it. Personally I listen to most music oldies, blues, Classic rock, Death metal, black metal, jazz, classical, hard rock all of em...and as music lovers I think its kind of pathetic you guys don't see the feeling in all music.
-ILVpwnage

****
Wow, way too much dissing each other's comments here, good people, and not nearly enough listening to the man. So much American music came from songs and traditions such as his, along with old European ballads (mainly the U.K.). Lighten up, people. My first exposure was the Ram Jam version, but it doesn't hold a candle to the original - where ever that may lie, and it most probably isn't Leadbelly either.
-westernjen 4 months ago

****
@demboy54 actually its 1 - 2 - 3 clap 4 -
-StijnBF2 4 months ago

****
@StijnBF2 This is the correct timing.  He has a clap on the "and" after the 3.
-Mr22mill

****
Ram Jam's version is the best in my opinion. Leadbelly influenced a ton of modern bluesman as well as Led Zepplin. Roots passed on by LB!
-Mr22mill

****
This is really hard to clap too.
-johnnycommon

****
@johnnycommon i don't know how you approach it, but the problem most people have to clapping/maintaining rhythm/playing syncopated music is that they're too focused on how to count it. it's good to know that he claps on the second beat of every other measure, but you need to know how to feel it. without using convoluted musical notation, you wouldn't know that the clap is on the "back half" of the beat, unless you listen to and, more importantly, FEEL the music.
-frankpc3

****
@slownlo It is a older song, older then Lead Belly. So please dont. Black Betty can (Of which wo examples I have heard) That it refers to is Alchol back in the day "That mans kiss'd ol Black Betty" (Drunk) Or Black Betty an old infantry mans musket or shotgun.
-robbie4233334

****
@iciavosser 1977 is when ram jams cameout. I like this version, meat loafs version, but ram jams is the best
-Cheesecakemilitia2

****
"In 1976, the group Ram Jam scored a hit record with a hard-rock version of the obscure 1930's Leadbelly blues tune, "Black Betty". At the time, this recording was deemed by the NAACP and C.O.R.E as "insulting black women", and both groups called for a boycott of the song. The situation: Ram Jam was a white group, but the composer (Leadbelly) was a black man. One thing is for sure - Ram Jam's version kicks some serious butt, and it's a "classic rock" staple."
-RippvonShar

****
The original song was a quickstep of the british army, when "The Black Betty" was the nickname of the infantrymen's shotgun, notice in fact the verse that says "She's so rockstedy / she's always ready", its referred to a solid (steady) weapon just loaded and ready to shot
-MonyVibescu1919

****
Leadbelly was not the composer/writer of this song..it's a folk song that Leadbelly simply recorded with the Lomax's in the 30's. This song was passed to Leadbelly via oral tradition. That's how most of Leadbelly's most famous songs were learned by him. He had an amazing memory for music and had memorized dozens if not hundreds of folk tunes and songs that are likely from the 19th century or even before.
-keepsake327

****
I've always loved hearing Leadbelly's versions of songs than the ones that would later copy him. I have a couple cds of Leadbelly's stuff, but it wasn't until today that I heard this version. Yeah, Ram Jam's version is awesome, but now knowing Huddie did this song WAY, WAY beforehand - It just shows how much of a % of rock came out of this one man.
-danasteve524

****
Interestingly the origins of this sog can be traced all the way back to the eighteenth century and the British army. They had flintlocks nicknamed "The Black Betty" due to their black stocks and "The Brown Bess" due to it's brown stock. Black Betty was a marching chant sung by the soldiers about their weapons. Do a bit of digging and it's amazing what you find out, who'd have ever guessed that? Music come from the unlikeliest of scources!
-eimajecnerwal

****
@flamespear86

uh... do you know "Black Betty" is a type of whip used to punish the prisoner in Southern US???
-realmwar

****
From Wikipedia:.. ""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. It exists in numerous versions, arguably the most famous being the 1977 rock version by the band Ram Jam"".
-DallasPix

****
Let's not forget that in Leadbelly's time, blues and jazz were considered the devil's music in many households and not just in White communities. There are probably as many Blacks as Whites in the Bible Belt. Even through John Lee Hooker's time there was a stigma attached to both genres by the Christian community.
-toeg1

Contact

Email: jambalayah17@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2010-2011 Azizi Powell; All Rights Reserved