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Crime and Prison Songs: “Black Betty”

In the 1930’s, John A. Lomax and his son, Alan Lomax, traveled around the United States collecting and recording ballads and songs sung by cowboys, lumberjacks, slaves, creoles, and railway men. They also recorded work songs sung by convicts in Southern prison farms.

The following song, “Black Betty,” appears in their 1934 compilation, American Ballads and Folk Songs, and it was sung to the Lomaxes by a convict doing time at the Darrington State Farm in Texas. “Black Betty” refers to “the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons.”

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bam-ba-lamb,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
Black Betty had a baby,
Bambalamb,
Black Betty had a baby,
Bambalamb.

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bam-ba-lamb,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bam-ba-lamb,
It de cap’n’s baby,
Bam-ba-lamb
It de cap’n’s baby,
Bam-ba-lamb.

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
But she didn’ feed de baby,
Bambalamb,
But she didn’ feed de baby,
Bambalamb.

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Bambalamb,
Black Betty, where’d you come from?
Bambalamb,
Black Betty, where’d you come from?
Bambalamb.

Click the audio link at the beginning of this post to hear the song performed by Lead Belly and to listen to me talk more about “Black Betty.”

John A. Lomax

African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground) - Library of Congress

Two unidentified convicts, one of whom is playing the guitar and looks like Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) - Library of Congress

Lead Belly

Sources

One Comment

  1. Susan wrote:

    I really enjoyed this post, including the audio. Thank you for sharing.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

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