You may be wondering, why are all these white artists singing about a Black Betty? Is this racism? Is it a tribute to black culture? Is it just coincidence and not talking about a black woman at all? Thankfully, Black Betty is a song written by an unknown but likely African American composer, so we don't need to go fully into rage mode quite yet.
Black Betty is often said to be written by blues singer Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter because of his recorded version in 1939, but even he didn't create the song himself. He was inspired by this tune that was already popular in the African American community. The first recording was actually performed a cappella by the convict James "Iron Head" Baker and a group at Central State Farm prison. Keep the prison fact in mind for the rest of my opinion on this song.
The first fact here is that the original songwriter could not be credited because African Americans didn't have the luxury of publishing or crediting their works in the 19th century. The original songwriter cannot be credited, but the song has been covered and performed by several non-white performers who have made money off of it.
The second fact here is that it is a song written by black people for black people. It wasn't written to be racist or rude, but as a form of creative expression that the African American community really enjoyed. Other cultures obviously heard and loved the song as well, and decided to adopt it into their own creations, which isn't inherently racist, but it could be questionable. Let me share more on why.
Black Betty has a few meanings behind it, all with rich African American cultural references. Keep in mind, that rich African American culture references in this era often alluded to trauma and injustices that black people suffered through. The most obvious story it's telling is about a black woman who dances, drives men wild, and also has a kid that drives her wild.
But according to the Lomaxes in the book "American Ballads and Folk Songs", "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."
Black Betty could also be a reference to prison transport wagons. According to historian Robert Vells, "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.”
A less heavy interpretation of Black Betty is a reference to a popular Whiskey drink that was around in the 18th and 19th centuries. People who were drunk from this Whiskey were said to have "kissed black Betty".
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As you may already know, rock music is heavily influenced by early blues African American artists and instrumentalists. The most popular remake of this song was released in 1977 by the band Ram Jam which became a huge hit charting in the US, UK, and Australia.
Other artists that turned this into hits heavily remixed from the Ram Jam version with dance and club versions from DJs worldwide. Tom Jones and Spiderbait also made popular versions that were close to the Ram Jam interpretation of the song.
The NAACP deemed the song offensive to Black women when it was first released by Ram Jam. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire administration banned the playing of Ram Jam's "Black Betty" at UNH hockey games. This divided a lot of people's opinions on the matter, and the people who don't bother to look deep into the song's origins just see it as leftists complaining about something that isn't necessarily racist.
Is the song saying something negative about black women? I don't think so. Is the song offensive if it's sung by someone who is not black? No, because it doesn't have any derogatory terms or messages in the lyrics. Is this a song that is made by black people and for black people? We will never know because we don't know who wrote it due to the erasure of black culture.
Some will argue that some royalties still go to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter's estate and that banning this song is taking money from a black person's pocket. My problem with this argument is that Ledbetter made the song popular, but he did not write the song. More royalties still go to these non-black artists and not to Huddie.
Are most versions of this song a bop? Yes, I think this song is very great and that's why it keeps getting covered. Is it in poor taste for white music artists to sing this song? I believe so. Is it insensitive to make hit songs with lyrics that are referencing prison transport wagons and whips that were used on black people during the glossed-over period of pain and trauma that my black ancestors went through? I believe so.
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