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Archive for May 19th, 2008

5-19-08 Black Betty

Posted by Sean on May 19, 2008

Most people are familiar with the 1977 Ram Jam version of Black Betty. But, as YouTube and the series of tubes in general has taught me, there’s more than one version of any song.

Black Betty actually has a pretty fascinating history. It was field recorded in 1933 by John and Alan Lomax at Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas; it was sung by James Baker, also known as Iron Head, then a convict serving time there. It was first recorded commercially by Huddie Ledbetter – better known to you and me as Lead Belly – in 1939. The lyrics and an interesting interpretation of them are here.

Wikipedia lists no less than 19 covers since then, and that’s probably an incomplete list. You’re probably most familiar with the 1977 Ram Jam version, which hit No. 18 on the United States pop charts. But then, maybe not, because that’s a hell of a lot of covers.

Incidentally, there’s been some controversy about whether Black Betty is racist. The answer to that, of course, is: I have no idea. This is what Black Betty sounds like to me:

Whoa, Black Betty! Bam-a-lam!
Whoa, Black Betty! Bam-a-lam!
Something something something! Bam-a-lam!
Something something something! Bam-a-lam!

(repeat nine billion times)

Here’s the original Leadbelly version, sung a capella (far as I can tell), with Ledbetter beating the off-beat on the back of his guitar. Interesting choice of video courtesy of AbsintheColour.

Here’s the version that probably everyone knows best: the Ram Jam version, complete with a clumsy instrumental that trips up the whole song, off their 1977 self-titled album. Courtesy of toddski.

Ha Ha Tonka‘s cover is basically a leaner version of Ram Jam’s… and a singer who simply owns the song.

Courtesy of jessicalyn84.

Spiderbait‘s cover, from 2004 (single avialable at Sanity), is bascially a lo-fi southern rock version of Ram Jam (which is a little odd, as they’re Australian), but with a mid-course instrumental that avoids going “clunk”. The video has an old black Ford cutting donuts, which is always a good thing. And the drummer beats the Ford in a dragrace with his mad skins skeelz! Courtesy of readerr0r.

And here’s the funkalicious Tom Jones version, released on a 2002 single with I Who Have Nothing. It replaces the instrumental with some slower singing. You’ll think I’m crazy, but I like this version. And he mentions Leadbelly, too. Courtesy of 10DaNa10.

Meatloaf decided to release his own cover in 2006 as a single. The result? Well, he’s still got the pipes for Black Betty, but his backing band sounds like they’re sleepwalking through it. And the video… well, let’s just say I saw Richard Wagner sit straight up in his grave and say, “Oy vey, and ya thought I vas overblown!” (Methinks Tim Curry didn’t give back the subtlety part of Meatloaf’s brain once shooting on The Rocky Horror Picutre Show ended)

Courtesy of mimisch.

And from the folks that brought you Jesus Built My Hotrod, Ministry, comes this version of Black Betty on 2008’s Cover Up. It’s got it’s thrash dials cranked all the way up to 11 and is good if you ever need music to smash your head into a brick wall to. But they’ve still got that damn midsong instrumental!

Courtesy of lolos80.


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