Well, this is a pretty good question with a pretty tricky answer, because this song is something of an enigma wrapped in a mystery. It’s not clear who wrote it, what the song is really about, or even what a “black betty” is. It has been recorded in different versions by many different artists and has taken on a life of its own.
However, some people have strong feelings about the song and its content. Some claim that it is about a black woman named Betty, while others say it’s a metaphor for something else. No one can really agree, but let’s take a look at the main ideas people have about this controversial song as we find out Is The Song Black Betty Racist?
The History of the Song “Black Betty” in a Nutshell
Most people probably recognize the song “Black Betty” from Ram Jam’s 1977 version of this now infamous tune. But that’s not nearly the beginning of the song’s known history.
Instead, the song is generally credited to Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Lead Belly was an early and pioneering blues musician known for his rough delivery and for bringing folk songs into the blues fold. It’s possible that “Black Betty” was one of these songs. Lead Belly recorded it in 1939 as an a capella song set to the sounds of hammers. This made the song sound like a prison chain gang work song, which was the idea.
But it goes back further than that…
In fact, earlier versions of the song exist, so it’s very doubtful Lead Belly could have written it himself. The earliest recording was made in 1933 as a field recording at the Central State Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. This was a prison farm, and the singers recorded were James ‘Iron Head’ Baker and a group of other prisoners, including Clear Rock, R.D. Allen & Will Crosby. It wasn’t exactly a chain gang, but it definitely has the sound of a work song.
It’s possible that this was a popular work song that was passed around the prison system. Lead Belly had already served three periods in prison by the time of that earliest 1933 recording, including a stint in Sugar Land in 1918! However, that doesn’t clarify whether he heard the song while in the prison system or whether he was the one who wrote it and introduced it as a work song.
After that, the trail runs cold, and we’re left to speculate what prior history the song may have had. There are many theories – about as many as there are versions of this song!
Who or What is Black Betty?
This is actually a pretty hard question to answer because there are lots of different versions of this song. Each version has different lyrics, too, and these lyrics give different clues about who or what “Black Betty” might be.
Is “Black Betty” a Woman?
If you listen to Lead Belly’s version of the song from his 78rpm album Negro Sinful Songs you’ll be quite convinced that his “Black Betty” is very likely a woman.
“Black Betty had a baby, Bam da lam
Damn thing gone crazy, Bam da lam
Baby wasn’t none of mine, Bam da lam
Damn thing gone blind, Bam da lam”
…among other lyrics. It sounds here like the singer is talking about a woman and a (possibly) illegitimate child.
These lyrics are also echoed in the slightly different Ram Jam version of the song:
“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”
Now, this idea of “Black Betty” being a woman is even found in the very first recording of the song, the Iron Head version, where he sings,
“Black betty had a baby, Bam da lam
and the damn thing crazy, Bam da lam
she dipped its head in gravy, Bam da lam
Oh lord black betty, Bam da lam
Black betty where she (you) come from, Bam da lam
Oh lord (lordy) black betty, Bam da lam
Now (oh) the baby had blue eyes, Bam da lam
Well it must have been the captains, Bam da lam”
To most people, this is pretty clearly a song about a woman who had a baby whose paternity is in dispute.
Is “Black Betty” a Whip or a Car?
But then again, song lyrics are a form of art, and art is very often metaphorical. Work songs in a Texas prison may also hold up earlier traditions created by black slaves and contain hidden references or codes.
The ethnomusicologists who recorded the very first version of the song, John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax, wrote in their 1934 book American Ballads and Folk Songs that “Black Betty” was not a woman. Instead, this was the code name given by the prisoners to the big bullwhip used by guards to punish them. Hence the “Bam da lam,” which can be interpreted as the sound of the whip striking a prisoner.
There’s no recorded or written explanation from the performers of the song to back up that interpretation. And how, you might ask, does a whip have a baby?
In fact, in another publication in 1960, Alan Lomax quotes a prison warden who claims that their penitentiary transfer vehicle, commonly known as a “Black Maria,” was nicknamed “Black Betty.” In this case, we have to wonder what it means if the song is about a car or van. But, again, how does a car have a baby?
So while both interpretations are possible, we don’t have any proof of what’s really true.
Is Black Betty a Bottle of Booze?
There are other, much older historical uses of the term “black betty.” As long ago as the 1700s, the term “black betty” was a nickname for a bottle of whisky in England and Scotland, possibly because of the dark color of the liquid inside. This use of the name also made its way to America. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin even wrote a list of 228 euphemisms for being drunk. Among them was “He’d kiss’d black Betty.”
While whisky can make people do some pretty crazy things, it’s still not clear what the lyrics would mean if the song is about a bottle of booze – one that has a baby?
Is Black Betty a Gun?
Some time ago, there was speculation that a “black betty” might have been a term used for a musket. There is a record of a gun nicknamed “brown bess,” which had an oiled wooden stock. The suggestion was that the “black betty” was a previous version of a similar gun but with a black painted stock. This theory even explains the “child” in the song as being a bullet.
However, there is no historical evidence to back this theory up, so I think we can safely put this one to bed.
In the end, there is no clear consensus on who or what “Black Betty” is, and that makes sit pretty darned tough to interpret this song reliably.
But is the Song Black Betty Racist?
Well, now that we know how unclear the meaning of the song is, it’s just as hard to say whether or not it’s racist in any way.
If the song is about a woman, it could definitely be seen as racist to call someone “Black Betty.” This would be making a point about the color of her skin, which could be seen as a jibe or an insult. On the other hand, the original singers of this song, as far as we know, were black. Would it be racist for them to call a woman by this name?
If the song really is metaphorical and is referring to something else like a whip, a car, or a bottle of whisky, then there’s no racist content here at all. It’s simply talking about the color of the object in question.
So how about performing the song?
If this song is truly about a woman, it could be considered offensive when people, especially non-black people, sing it. The modern covers by Ram Jam and the Australian alt-rock band Spiderbait could be seen as racist as these are both white bands.
The University of New Hampshire thought it was a racist song, and in 2004, the administration banned Black Betty. Prior to 2004, the Ram Jam version was commonly played at hockey games and really got the crowd going. However, the university didn’t want to promote a song that possibly “insults any segment of society.” After a lot of pressure from fans of the song, however, the ban was lifted in 2013.
Want to know more about great songs, artists, and bands?
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Is The Song Black Betty Racist? – Should Black Betty Be Banned?
Is the song offensive? Well, if we take the common interpretation, many people would think so. Is it made worse when non-black people perform this song? Again, many would think so. On the other hand, if the song was written actually by Lead Belly or possibly even Iron Head, both of whom were proud black musicians, is banning the song the wrong thing to do?
These are some tough questions, and in the end, it’s not my business to tell you what you should think about them. Is Black Betty a Racist song? It depends on so many factors, including the original author of the song, the meaning behind it, and even who performs it.
But let me say that if we’re trying so hard to figure out if something is racist or not, maybe we’re not doing the right thing. There is a ton of real, true, and blatant racism that happens every day. Maybe we should focus our energy more on trying to end that instead.