We are all familiar with the Ram Jam version of Black Betty.
Its incredibly classic, in fact, it pre-dates recording. After Ram Jam there were a few remixes and dance versions of their hit. Moses ‘Clear Rock’ Platt’s story is similar to Iron Head’s. Not a gang of thugs whose weapon of choice was a chain.
Moses Platt was probably a prison name, and the nickname ‘Clear Rock’ was given to him for killing three people by throwing rocks at them. MURrow turnin’ over, in his grave.
It’s a classic and we all love it whether we’re willing to admit it or not. 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.
You gotta love Nick Cave.
Unfortunately that alone doesn’t make it good. These early versions of Black Betty that we have recordings of are African-American work songs, so basically prison or slave songs that would have been sung by chain gangs. In 2004 Spiderbait had a hit with a louder, faster, more aggressive version of Ram Jam. Generally one person would sing the lines and then the rest of the gang would accompany. Why? I say that because in different versions of the song ‘Black Betty’ refers to various different things: a prison wagon for transferring prisoners, a whip, a gun (a specific type of musket) and a bottle of whisky. So you disguise what you’re singing about. It wasn’t a hit. This was 1976. And since this version of the song, we now only really get this version. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot going on with Betty during the 50s and 60s. Which in itself is amazing. The party-rock song, whoa-O Black Betty, bam-ba-lam, whoa-O Black Betty. James ‘Iron Head’ Baker was in fact in prison. When he recorded ‘Black Betty’ and other songs with the Lomaxes he was on his sixth term in prison, thirty-four years, and he was sixty-three years old. This is what the blues is about, you take something that came before you and do your own thing with it. The artist makes it their own. The prison guards or soldiers were ‘hugging Black Betty’. Damn thing went wild. Instead, because he’s endlessly classy, he did the Lead Belly version. Ed Murrow had a child, in his grave, the damn thing went wild, in his grave. Soil did it. There are literally too many versions to go through them all.
Lead Belly probably picked it up as a traditional folk song while he was imprisoned and working in a chain gang.
And only form of pleasure if it’s the sort of think you’re into. We all spend so much of our time clicking through reams of content and sometimes not reading anything of interest at all. Its a classic and we all love it whether were willing to admit it or not. James Baker’s history is itself fascinating. There’s little of the old blues number in it. So, that’s it, videos below. Cookies are yum so we use them to make your HeadStuff experience more yummy. But before Ram Jam got their hands on it Manfred Mann did just that in a live show. A chain gang was a long line of prisoners or slaves (innocent prisoners) chained together at the ankle all working on some sort of hard labour (train tracks, breaking rocks etc.). More words, more rhymes.
Alan Bennett was a stand-up comedian for a while and during that time he toured with David O'Doherty and Maeve Higgins and did well in some competitions and co-ran Schnitzel Comedy Club. Joe Brown did a mandolin version. Let us know which is your favourite version in the comments. Computer Love | The Freedom of the Internet for Musicians. We have the lyrics, that riff, the speed, the drums, it’s all there. The musket would have been a flint-lock musket with a black painted stock. Sheryl Crow did a version during which I’m surprised she managed to stay awake. Except one thing. He was recorded and archived by John A. Lomax and his sons Alan and John Jr.. And you’re not going to be singing about how you don’t like his whip. Almost Happy, Vegetable Creep, The Origin of the World’s Art: Prehistoric Cave Painting. Because that prick will whip you again. Even if you didn’t do a cover of it, you will get credited with one; ZZ Top, AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd all have versions of Black Betty on Youtube, all of which are definitely Ram Jam.
Even if all the other ones with literally exactly the Ram Jam version, but with a slightly different singer voice, they’d still all be better than this nonsense.). But the song is a lot more classic than you might think. It’s not the modern rock Black Betty that is familiar to us, but you can clearly see (hear) the evolution in process, sprawling guitars etc. So that damn whip becomes, for example, ‘Black Betty’.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion have another loud version which is, disappointingly the rock version, not blues. The song seems to have origins in the 18th century, long before Lead Belly was even thinking about being born. He was a self-proclaimed habitual prisoner. But the next heavy hitter to pick it up was none other than Nick Cave with his Bad Seeds, in 1986. HeadStuff.org is a collaborative hub for the creative and the curious. Everything creative is informed by what preceded it, everything is an evolution, and Black Betty is a great example of the evolution of one small traditional folk song. The song means nothing to her, there’s no history to it.
They even begin to make the baby blind. They want to express themselves and their hardships. He received a Masters with first class honours in creative writing from UCD and a BA in fine art painting from LSAD.
This is art. The party-rock song, whoa-O Black Betty, bam-ba-lam, whoa-O Black Betty. In other versions you’ll hear, Black Betty had a child, bam-ba-lam. Which I’m not into. Mad stuff. Acapella. His version called “Looky Looky Yonder/Black Betty/Yellow Women’s Doorbells” is a sort of medley, and it appears to be about a woman called Black Betty, who ends up pawning his clothes (that’s if the songs are linked). Next we have the dreadful, glitzy, get-back-in-your-box-Dad, 2002, Tom Jones version. We are all familiar with the Ram Jam version of Black Betty. He had an incredible voice, and it was said that he knew so many songs that he never sang the same song twice. By revival I mean the song was going to become an international hit, heard daily by more people than had heard it in the previous hundred or so years accumulated. He knew his songs so well, was so knowledgeable that John Lomax referred to him as the ‘black Homer’. One of the things I love about the song is how the lyrics change slightly in pretty much every single version. Jack White belts into one Black Betty chorus during a live performance of Screwdriver with his band The White Stripes. He also claimed to be a habitual prisoner. We get up every morning to make your daily journey through the internet more interesting and productive. Ministry did it. One of his phrases is “He’s kiss’d black Betty’. 4 Thrash Albums You Simply Don’t Throw Away! Gone are the days of Iron Head’s mellow acapella sing-a-long. And even still, a year before Ram Jam could get their hands on it, a band called Starstruck did their cover of it.
One recorded example is done very much in this style.
But in fact it appears to outdate Mr. Lead Belly by quite some time. And when a updated model of the gun came out, known as ‘Brown Bess’, with an unpainted wooden stock, it was seen as the ‘child’ of the flint-lock musket.
HeadStuff is all about putting buckets of interesting stuff in one place. Black Betty is a black belter according to every musician ever. So, I’ll just leave you with what I consider to be the important attempts, or the ones that were hits. While on a chain gang, singing was pretty much the only past time. Plus they add some electro-banjo. But it had one important difference. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. Used some of ‘Black Betty’ in his political song, ‘Murrow Turning Over in his Grave’. She seems utterly bored while singing. This is where the bottle of whisky version of Black Betty would come into it. An interesting side note which is mostly unrelated: John A. Lomax married a woman called Bess Brown. And, as always, people want to sing about what’s going on in their lives. The medley ‘Looky Looky Yonder/Black Betty/Yellow Woman’s Doorbell’. Then he started writing fiction and it has been published in several literary magazines and anthologies including 30 Under 30 which Joseph O'Connor chose as one of his books of the year for The Irish Times. But there was something of a revival about to take place. I haven’t done the research on it, but I would wager that 200 million bands have covered it since Ram Jam, and each of them (bar one) has that same riff, they do it fast and loud. Perhaps it was a musket, the bam-ba-lam becomes the noise of the gunshot. Then Meatloaf did a big-voice rock version in 2006. And he cracks his whip BAM-BA-LAM. He spent forty-seven years in prisons in Texas. It’s a take off of Black Betty. The Melvins added little to it in 2011. Mr. Cave is a brilliant musician, we all know that, and he’s a blues appreciator and he’s the one musician who took the song up post Ram Jam and didn’t do the rock version with the guitar riff. In fact this is the worst version. It’s incredibly classic, in fact, it pre-dates recording. In 1736 Benjamin Franklin published a book called The Drinker’s Dictionary which lists 228 phrases for being drunk. His nickname ‘Iron Head’ is how he was known, but the name James Baker may just be a name the prison gave to him. But the song is a lot more classic than you might think. Radio friendly. Black Betty had a baby, bam-ba-lam. Their version is basically the exact same as the Starstruck version, except slightly worse in my opinion, slightly more repetitive, despite being half the length. This was done with many very early blues musicians singing folk songs and prison songs (including Lead Belly) and the work was hugely important to the history of music, black culture, the Mississippi Delta and of course, rock and roll owes a lot to it. He just does it with slightly more attitude and gusto. Though she does dance around during the musicy bits.