Hi Worksongers, Black Betty: Now here's a song that has so many layers of use and revival it's hard to call it one thing or another. It has been listed as a military marching cadence, prison holler, rock anthem.
And the phrase Black Betty itself has had several different meanings over the years... it was the nickname for the long rifle used in the revolutionary war (mother of the Brown Bess), and in the Texas prison system it was the name the prisoners used for the whip of the guards and the vehicle used to bring prisoners back and forth from the prison. It's also been the slang name for a bottle of whiskey in England, Scotland and America.
There is one of the more thorough wikipedia articles I've ever seen all about Black Betty that you should give a read over as you learn the song. Check it out:
One thing I can say is that it works great for stacking wood with a group of people. Anyone can sing the refrain, bambalam, and it's pretty easy to start making up lyrics using the existing form of the song. When we were stacking wood the other day I had a lot of luck by using opposites, ie. Black Betty was up, Black Betty was down, Black Betty in the city, Black Betty in the town...
This trick of using opposites is helpful in any song that requires quick lyrical invention: once you've chosen a noun, the second half of the lyric is already decided for you. Works pretty well in this song.
I know a lot of you have started seeding onions and the like in your greenhouses. This is also a great chance to try on Black Betty because seeding can get kinda mindless and its easy to hear other people inside the greenhouse, unless the fan's on. And if the fan's on you can always harmonize with it.
Anyway, give it a try and let me know how it goes. And shoot me a note if you have any question!
PS. I'm sorry I'm not sending these things out weekly... it's tougher to keep a schedule than I thought it would be, especially since we're still building our house, it's tough to get settled into a routine. But I hope you're enjoying them when I do send them out. And thanks to all of you who have sent encouragement. Feels great to get the feedback. All the best - BK