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Thursday, June 14, 2012

O Berta (Prison Work Song) With Lyrics

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases a sound file of the prison work song "O Berta". My partial transcription of the lyrics for that song is also included in this post.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

My thanks to the Hollie "Bull" Dew and the other men who sang this song*. My heart goes out to all those who sung such an emotionally moving song under such terrible conditions. My thanks also to the John and Alan Lomax, the collectors & recorders of this song. My thanks also to CowboyBebop444, the uploader of this sound file.

*I'm not sure if this song was composed by those men or was an adaptation of a previously composed song.

Hat tip to Mick Pearce (MCP) from Mudcat Cafe who wrote about this song on that folk music forum.

****
SUMMARY STATEMENT ABOUT "O BERTA" (with slight revisions July 2, 2016)
"O Berta" is an African American cane field work song that is sung by Hollie (Bull) Dew and unidentified prisoners (11-12/1947) at the infamous Parchman farm in Mississippi. http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=10706

The percussive sound of the singers' swinging their hoes is the only accompaniment to the men's voices in this song.

In that song, "Berta" symbolizes the women they left behind. The men imagine seeing Berta walking toward them, give advice to Berta on who she should marry, and sing about other things they remember about their lives outside of the prison.

FEATURED VIDEO
Prison Songs - O 'Berta.avi



Uploaded by CowboyBebop444 on May 31, 2011

****
LYRICS: O BERTA
(Hollie (Bull) Dew & unidentified prisoners, Parchman Farm Prison, Mississippi, 1947)

O Berta
Well, Lord gal.
Lord, Berta
Well Lord gal, well.

Ain’t that Berta comin, down that road, well.
She walk like Berta but she, want you so, well.
She want you so baby, she want you so, well.
She walk like Berta but, she want you so, well.

O Lord Berta, well.
Lord gal.
Lord Berta.
Lord, gal, well.

I been called Berta but, the whole day long, well.
And how can she hear me when she,
She ain’t at home, well.
She ain’t at home, Berta
She ain’t at home, well.
And how can she hear me when she,
she ain’t at home well.

Well, O Berta.
Lord, gal.
(Hum, hum, hum it!)
Lord Berta.
Lord gal, well.

Saturday when you marry, marry to the railroad man, well.
well Saturday when you marry, marry to the railroad man, well.
Saturday when you marry marry to the railroad man, well.
‘Cause he gonna find you a dollar, to lay your hand, well.
To lay your hand, baby, to lay your hand well.
'Cause he gonna find you a dollar
To lay your hand well.

Saturday when you marry, don’t marry no farmin man, well.
Saturday when you marry, don’t marry no farmin man, well.
‘Cause Saturday when you marry don’t no farmin men well.
‘Cause he never gonna did find yoou any how*
To lay your hand baby, lay your hand, well.
Lay your hand baby, lay your hand well.
'Cause he’ll never gonna find you a dollar
To lay your hand well.

Well O, Berta.
Lord gal.
Lord, Berta.
Lord gal, well.

????
????
cause I’m gonna find somebody
To roll’em down, baby.
To roll' em down, well.
Mama won’t let nobody
To roll’em down well

Lord Berta, well.
Lord gal.
Lord Berta.
Lord gal, well.

???? ???
To hang around, well.
????
When I’m down baby
????
When I’m down, well
When I’m down, baby
When I’m down, well

Well O Berta.
Lord gal.
Lord, Berta.
Lord gal.

-snip-
Transcription by Azizi Powell, 6/14/2012 from sound file. Except for the lyrics in parenthesis, this transcription doesn't include any of the overlapping, echoed words that are sung throughout this song.

*unsure about the word or words
? unable to transcribe these words

Corrections and additions welcome.

****
VARIOUS COMMENTS ABOUT THE SONG "O BERTA" [UPDATE May 15, 2015]
"O Berta" is part of the family of "Alberta" ("Roberta") family of songs. One relatively common example of this song family is "Alberta, Let Your Hair Hang Low".

The song "Berta Berta" that is included in August Wilson's 1995 play "The Piano Lesson" is a form of "O Berta". (Hat tip to mrks for information about the following song)

Here's the lyrics to "Berta Berta" as published by Matt_R, 18 Feb 01 on http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=31028

BERTA, BERTA

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well

Go 'head marry don't you wait on me oh-ah
Go 'head marry don't you wait on me well now
Might not want you when I go free oh-ah
Might not want you when I go free well now

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well now

Raise them up higher, let them drop on down oh-ah
Raise them up higher, let them drop on down well now
Don't know the difference when the sun go down oh-ah
Don't know the difference when the sun go down well now

Berta in Meridian and she living at ease oh-ah
Berta in Meridian and she living at ease well now
I'm on old Parchman, got to work or leave oh-ah
I'm on old Parchman, got to work or leave well now

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well now

When you marry, don't marry no farming man oh-ah
When you marry, don't marry no farming man well now
Everyday Monday, hoe handle in your hand oh-ah
Everyday Monday, hoe handle in your hand well now

When you marry, marry a railroad man oh-ah
When you marry, marry a railroad man well now
Everyday Sunday, dollar in your hand oh-ah
Everyday Sunday, dollar in your hand well now

O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah
O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well

Taken from the play The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, as written in the text and as sung in the Hallmark Hall of Fame by Charles S. Dutton, Courtney B. Vance, Carl Gordon and Lou Myers.
-snip-
Here's that sound file:
"Berta, Berta" by Branford Marsalis



jazzman amos, Uploaded on Mar 21, 2009

From his 1992 release titled "I Heard You Twice The First Time",...here is the GREAT Branford Marsalis featuring vocals by Charles Dutton, Carl Gordon and Roscoe Rocky Carroll from "The Roc". This classic track is from August Wilsons outstanding play "The Piano Lesson".
-snip-
Except for a change in names, "O Berta" has the same chorus as the African American Blues (prison song)"Rosie", and the "every Sunday dollar in your hand" line in "Rosie" is similar to the "lay dollar in your hand" lines in "O Berta". The tunes used for these two songs are also similar. Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2015/05/rosie-african-american-prison-work-song.html for a post about that song.

Also, click http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=8067 for the lyrics to another version of "Rosie" that is entitled "Rosie O Ho".

"Old Dollar Mamie" is another prison Blues song
that is related to "O Berta". Click http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=14515 for the lyrics to that song.

**
With regard to the word "well" at the end of a number of lines in this song such as "O Lord Berta, well" and "Lord, gal, well":

African Americans still use "well" as an affirming word in religious & non-religious songs. In those contexts, I believe that "well" has the same or a similar meaning as "yeah". "Well" is also used as a response to speech, including conversations and sermons. A longer form of this affirming use of "well" is the phrase "Well, alright now".

**
[Slight revision July 2, 2016]
I wrote this comment on that sound file's YouTube discussion thread in response to the song's uploader's comment that it's a shame that African Americans aren't more familiar with this song (and presumably, other prison work songs)
"I think that some of the blame for this is that we African Americans don't treasure most of our old time music - in part because we are forward looking people more interested in new music forms instead of old ones and in part because we don't want to be reminded of the memories of terrible times such as slavery & chain gangs. But there is so much richness of spirit in many of these songs.I appreciate them and honor their composers/performers."
-snip- Revision ended

**
As an aside, I wonder if the words "Berta but" in the line "She walk like Berta but she, want you so, well" had any influence whatsoever on the Jimmy Castor's 1975 Pop & Funk song "Bertha But Boogie".

Among African Americans, a person with a "Bertha Butt" usually means a female teenager or woman (usually a Black female) with a large, protruding behind (butt). I wonder if that phrase has its source in this "O Berta" song.

Click http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LQJYgs1sxc for a sound file of the "Bertha Butt Boogie".

****
OTHER RELATED LINKS
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_State_Penitentiary

**
http://www.mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=121223 "Lyr & Orig: Alberta, Let your hair hang"

****
Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.

15 comments:

  1. Hello, thanks for all the work,

    I found another version on a CD by Branford Marsalis. Actually it`s almost the same version as in the mentioned video of Wilson`s play.
    The song is on the album "I heard you twice the first time" from 1992.
    Bless, greets from northern Germany.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for that information, mrks!

      I updated this post with a sound file of that song which I wasn't previously aware of.

      Youtube is amazing, isn't it as is the internet itself for its ability to connect music lovers all around the world.

      Thanks again!


      Delete
  2. These lyrics are close, but very inaccurate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anonymous,

      Please share the lyrics to this song that you know.

      Thanks!

      Delete
  3. I would love to have seen the play version of "The Piano Lesson". I did see the 1995 movie and the O Berta song was one of my favorite moments in it. I loved the bond the African American men shared which is no longer as prevalent as it was then. It is growing but not as appreciated my the new generations. I also enjoyed listening to "Berta, Berta" by Branford Marsalis what wonderful history in this song and they sang it with feeling and emotion. Wonderful!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments, A.M. Coffee.

      I "hear" what you are saying about the bond between Black men then and now. But maybe things were never as good as we think they were in the past. At any rate, there's much work to be done on that front and so many others...

      Delete
  4. I am trying to find the lyrics that Roc sings on Branford's version, cant find it anywhere? Can you post them or a link?
    Thank you for such a great job!
    Daniel Danielson Harlem NYC

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, Daniel Danielson.

      I updated this post to add the lyrics to "Berta Berta" that were performed in that August Wilson play.

      I found those lyrics on the Mudcat folk music forum (link given above).

      Delete
  5. Hi,
    I live in France and our choir leader has chosen the Betty Bonifassi version of this song. I find it a very powerful and evocative song but I don't fully understand the lyrics which I think Bonifassi has adapted. As the only native English speaking person my French choir friends naturally ask me to explain the song. Can anyone help me. The Bonifassi version has a line 'She might not want you when she, got free, Well well well.' That seems to imply that a male prisoner is sad that a female prisoner lover is about to be released, and may not want him when she is free. But that seems to change the original thrust of the song which from this web pages suggests it was about male prisoners longing for the women who they had left behind. Also wanted to check on the comment about Berta but. It sounded a bit sexist but is it actually accurate. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello, Gite de Piquetalen.

      It's good to know a choir in France is singing "Berta".
      I found the Betty Bonifassi version of that song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60SmxwRfzsA

      Here are the words that I hear in that version:
      Oh, Lord Berta Berta
      Oh, Lord gal

      Oh, Lord Berta Berta
      Oh, Lord gal

      Is that Berta comin
      Down the road (well)
      She walk like a Berta
      But she gonna marry to the railroad man.
      She want you so (well)
      She want you so (well)
      She might not want you
      When she go free (well well well)

      Oh Lord Berta Berta
      Oh Lord gal
      (oh well)

      [repeat these lines several times]

      I've been calling Alberta
      the whole day long
      (Well)
      And how can she hear me when she
      just say "I'm home." (well)
      She might not want you when she
      when she goes free
      (Well)
      And how can she hear me when she doesn't
      __ at me.

      Oh Lord Berta Berta
      Oh Lord gal (oh well)
      Oh Lord Berta Berta
      Oh Lord gal (well)

      Saturday when you gonna marry
      to a railroad man
      (well)
      "Cause he gonna find you a dollar
      to lay in your hand.
      Oh!

      Oh Lord, Berta Berta
      Oh Lord gal
      (Oh well)

      [repeat these lines several times]

      ****
      I think that the line "She might not want you when she go free" is a mis-translation. Instead, (as you wrote in your comment) to be true to the song, the line should have been "She might not want you when you go free" -meaning when the man who is singing gets out of prison.

      The word "well" in the song is an interjection that means something like "Un hun", "yeah" and doesn't have the same meaning as if someone was sick and now he or she is feeling better and says "I am feeling well".

      The voice of the song is a man who is in prison. He's the one who sings "I been calling Berta or I've been calling Alberta.
      I think that the line instead of "I've been calling Berta but" that you wrote. However, I'm not sure if that line is correct.

      I may have mentioned in this post that there was a Rock and Roll song called "Bertha butt boogie". That 1974 record was supposed to be a funny song about a woman with a big butt (behind, ass). It could be considered sexist. However, some people (male as well as female) think that having a big butt makes a woman attractive. For those people, it is a compliment to say that a woman has a big butt. However, a woman with a Bertha butt actually was an insult because that meant that her butt was too big.

      It's just a guess that the "Bertha Butt" song came from prison song "Berta". I don't know if that is true or not, but it might be true because the early singers (and Betty Bonifassi) sound like they are saying Bertha but.

      Here's the link to Jimmy Castor's Bertha Butt Boogie song
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jA0WUnp7xzE

      Thanks again Gite.

      Good luck with your choir's performance!!

      Please feel free to ask any other questions about songs with English words. Hopefully, other pancocojams reader and/or I can help you.

      Delete
    2. I meant to write "I think those are the words that are being sung in that line instead of [the line] "I've been calling Berta but" that you wrote.

      Delete
  6. Thank you very much for your reply. I will share it with our choir teacher.

    Thanks,

    Anton

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks so much for this. This song has been somewhere at the back of my mind since the early 90s when I lost the cassette that contained it. Good Stuff!

    Veronica

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Veronica.

      I learned about this song by internet surfing for information about African American prison songs. It's great that the internet also provides a way to share this song with other folks.

      Delete