Before Ram Jam made it a ‘70s anthem, Huddie Ledbetter recorded Black Betty, a Musicraft 78, in 1939.
You’re on the Sound Beat.
Although Lead Belly got the songwriting credit here, the real origins of Black Betty are hazy. Many researchers believe it’s based on an old folk song, one that was particularly popular among chain gangs. Its quite possible Ledbetter first heard Black Betty during one of his three prison terms.
Like the song’s origins, the very identity of Black Betty remains a mystery. Some see it as a metaphor for the slaveowners’ musket, or whip. Or a prison transport wagon. But the oldest interpretation comes from a very different source altogether: when Benjamin Franklin published The Drinkers Dictionary in 1737, he listed 228 phrases for being drunk. Number 23? “Kissing black betty.”
Sound Beat is produced at the Belfer Audio Archive, Syracuse University Libraries.
Episode written and produced by Matthew Mitchell.