"Black Betty" is traditional work song first recorded in Texas in the 1930s and popularized by the rock band Ram Jam in 1977. The lyrics "She's from Birmingham (bam-ba-lam) / Way down in Alabam' (bam-ba-lam)" did not appear in the earlier recorded versions.
Folk music documentarians John and Alan Lomax made the first known recording of "Black Betty" at Texas's Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land in 1933. The singer was James "Iron Head" Baker, whom Alan Lomax later interviewed about the origins of the song. According to Baker and sources interviewed at other Southern prisons, "Black Betty" was the name used by prisoners to refer to the wardens' bullwhips.
The phrase has been used earlier, in other contexts, to refer to a whisky bottle and there is some evidence that the song's history may extend back to an earlier marching cadence. Reverend Mose "Clear Rock" Platt, who sang "Black Betty" in 1939 for John and Ruby Lomax at the Hotel Blazilmar in Taylor, Texas; called the piece a "tree-cutting song".
The term "Black Betty" has also been used as an alternative term for a penitentiary wagon more familiarly called "Black Maria". The Lomaxes' 1934 book, "American Ballads and Folk Songs" also includes a reference to a "Black Betty" beating a drum in hell for Stagolee in Alexander "Little Alex" Wells' and Sullivan Rock's version of that ballad.
Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter performed "Black Betty" as part of a medley with the similar work songs "Looky Yonder" and "Yellow Woman's Doorbells" in a 1939 commercial recording for Musicraft in New York City. His a cappella rendition used the lyrics from the Lomaxes' book. Birmingham-born folk singer Odetta covered that medley version, titled "Looky Yonder", on her 1964 album Odetta Sings of Many Things. The English rock band Mannfred Mann released a version called "Big Betty" on their 1968 album Mighty Garvey.
Ram Jam, a band formed in New York City in 1977 by Myke Scavone, Bill Bartlett, Howie Arthur Blauvelt, and Pete Charles released a version which had actually been recorded by Bartlett's former band, "Starstruck" in 1976 and featured Bartlett rather than Scavone on lead vocals. The new release was a hit on the U.S., Great Britain, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand pop charts, reaching #18 on the weekly Billboard Hot 100.
Since the 1970s the songs lyrics, which can be seen as demeaning references to an apparently profligate black woman and a child that had "gone wild", have led to occasional boycotts and protests.
- Lomax, John A. & Alan Lomax (1934) American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York, New York: McMillan. Reprinted 1961 by Dover Publications ISBN 0486282767
- Mose Platt recording at the Library of Congress