Wednesday, April 27, 2016

1930s Versions Of The Folk Song "Black Betty"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides three 1930s sound file examples & lyrics of the African American folk song "Black Betty". Selected comments from the discussion thread of the example given as Version #2 are also included in this post.

The Addendum to this post also includes lyrics of another early example of "Black Betty". That example is from American Ballads and Folk Songs by John Lomax (originally published: January 1, 1934) [update April 28, 2016]

The content of this post is published for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the composer/s of the song "Black Betty", thanks to all those whose recordings are included in this post, and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these sound files and the transcribers of these lyrics.

Click for a pancocojams post that provides information about the meanings of the terms "Black Betty" and "Brown Bess".

The information that is included in that post was partly gleaned from information found in this post and from comments to this post. Special hat tip to commenter slam 2011!

These YouTube versions of given in chronological order based on their posting date.

Version #1: black betty (1939)

RosieKeepinthepromis, Uploaded on Apr 21, 2009
"I got this recording from the Library of Congress call number AFC 1939/001 2643b2.

It's the infamous song Black Betty. This wikipedia article has some interesting info about this song

This particular recording was done in 1939, Rev Mose 'Clear Rock' Platt is singing.
It was recorded in Texas (Taylor, Williamson County) by John and Ruby Lomax

The photograph is from the Library of Congress as well, call number LOT 7414-F, no. N11.
It has a handwritten note on the back"Moses Platt (Clear Rock) Sugarland, Tex. June 1934.", and the photographer is listed as John Lomax.

I am really interested in early recordings of this song. If you know of any recordings of Black Betty that were recorded 1939 or earler please let me know.

Also due to the quality of the recording I have some trouble making out the lyrics/conversation.
If you'd like to take a try at transcribing I'd love to see what you are hearing.

BlindBoyBlue has helped with some transcription (the whoa Black Betty isn't written because...well that's obvious):

Black Bettys in the bottom x2
just chewin' on the timber

Black Betty had a baby x2
well the thing went crazy
just drinkin' river water

Just jumpin' to a number x2

Just stewin' in the bottom
Just stewin' in the bottle

He then gets interupted and asked "who's this Black Betty?" to which he replies "Black Betty was an old n***** woman who...".

Can anyone else out there help make out that conversation at the end?"

[This is the end of that sound file's description.]
That abbreviated form of the n word (with asterisks) was given in the sound file's review.

Version #2: Black Betty- Leadbelly

songs1994, Published on Mar 3, 2009
The comments below are from the discussion thread for the sound file that was originally embedded in this post. That sound file which was published by RagtimeDorianHenry, on Apr 15, 2009, is not longer available.
Here are some comments from this sound file's discussion thread.
Many of these commenters shared different theories about what (or who) Black Betty was.

These comments are given in relative chronological order based on the year that they were posted. However, they may not be in consecutive order. I assigned numbers for referencing purposes only.

By reading online sources such as Wikipedia (though that source may not be all that reliable), I've learned that there have been different meanings for the term "Black Betty". It occurs to me that the early meanings of the term "Black Betty" may have nothing whatsoever to do with "Black Betty" folk song (or folk songs). Furthermore, it's possible that the term "Black Betty" may have more than one meaning within the same song.

1. Mich, 2010
"@putz1113 Southerners have been calling whisky Black Betty since they came over from the old country."

2. uckybear3822, 2010
"@MonyVibescu1919 Black betty referes to a flintlock musket. In the US, black betty was a common term for a liquor bottle. In January 1736, Benjamin Franklin published The Drinker's Dictionary in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering 228 round-about phrases for being drunk. One of those phrases is "He's kiss'd black Betty''."

3. westernjen, 2010
"Encore Comment: Part of this tells something that doesn't seem to have much to do with whips or wagons or anything like that. It has to do with a real child, who was blind and ran wild, but wasn't none of his doing ... or so he claims. Sound familiar?"

4. RippvonShar, 2010
" "In 1976, the group Ram Jam scored a hit record with a hard-rock version of the obscure 1930's Leadbelly blues tune, "Black Betty". At the time, this recording was deemed by the NAACP and C.O.R.E as "insulting black women", and both groups called for a boycott of the song. The situation: Ram Jam was a white group, but the composer (Leadbelly) was a black man. One thing is for sure - Ram Jam's version kicks some serious butt, and it's a "classic rock" staple." "

5. NocturniaTX, 2010
[written in response to a commenter who wrote that Lead Belly recorded "Black Betty" first.]
"@ucwicket420 Incorrect.
Baker was the original recording. I didn't say he went into a recording studio.
Field recordings by musicologists are *not* uncommon. John and Alan Lomax recorded Baker in at a work (prison) farm in Sugaland, TX (I grew up near Sugarland) in 1933 performing "Black Betty" a capella while Baker was a prisoner. The Lomax recordings are available through the Library of Congress.

Lead Belly's version was recorded in 1936."

6. tubemagpie, 2011
"To me this doesn't sound at all like a Blues.... yes it's Black/African American and sounds like a work song It has a rhythm and the clapping imposes a beat. Listen to it again and close your eyes . Imagine using a hoe in a field or perhaps a hammer in a forge(dubious).
The great thing about Leadbelly for me is the way he links the late 19th and the 20th centuries... many of his songs will have come from his early days (true folk songs) while many later were influenced by other trends."

7. mixmastermeeks, 2011
"@DudeXMyster There realy isn't an "original" writer of this song. Most of the ones Leadbelly sang are old folk songs. It would kinda be like trying to figure out who wrote twinkle twinkle little star. Although there are a lot of songs that he recorded before anyone else. House of the Rising Sun, Black Betty, Midnight speical......ect."

8. krzykanuk3, 2011
"FYI black betty is a whip"

9. Epeolatry1, 2011
"@kimzilla No, a Black Betty is an old type of musket."

10. Per Rock, 2011
"It is supposed to be a whip for slaves that was nicknamed "black betty" according to Wikpedia. I thought is was about a black lady but it seems not to be so this time...well. well"

11. N0band, 2011
"There is a time signature here, actually: 8/8. Leadbelly claps his hand on the sixth beat, leaving out only one clap ("Jump steady, Black Betty") to enter the verse. The song is an old Afro-American work/slave-song, the topic being the whip in the supervisor's hands (nicknamed Black Betty). The lead singer sang the verses while the rest of the group joined in at the chorus. The clap signifies the fall of the pick, hammer or shovel that the group was using so that the work would proceed in unison"

12. Reply
david tillman, 2011
"@N0band so your saying "black betty" is a whip, that means the whip had a baby and the damn thing went crazy... thanks for the laugh."

13. Jae Shep, 2011
"it could've been about a whip, a 17th-18th century musket, a woman, a pentitentary wagon. Buts its very debatable. clearly one of those songs thats meaning has changed over time. but no one is really "wrong" about what it means"

14. IamDottieDandridge, 2011
"@tomterrific456 he is saying jump steady black betty its an old black saying our elders still say it here in the South"

15. MacBratt, 2011
"@apugarcia Lead Belly mixes up the lyrics, he doesn't remember the song - again, I'm a big Lead Belly fan, I researched where he got it from. The oldest recorded version is by James "Iron Head" Baker
That version is a lot better, backing vocals and lyrics that do make sense. I bet Huddie heard it in prison and added it to his repertoir to impress Lomax."

16. ShottyIZ, 2012
"This was a prison song back in 1933 by James iron head Baker and Group, at least its the first known recording. Also if no ones knows, (in this song) Its referring to a whip that the guards used to punish convicts, its also known to be a nick name for a bottle a whiskey which Benjamin Franklin came up with when he made his drunk dictionary back in the 1700's... Come on kids keep up!"

17. ToWatchMusic, 2012
"black betty is a gun not a woman."

18. Baddaby, 2012
No one really knows what black betty is about. And I doubt we'll ever find out unless black belly himself says it. From his grave.

19. gunslinginnunz69, 2012
just saying but ur comment is a disgrace to the song considering the song is about a black slave being raped by her owner and having a blue-eyed child

20. kyrastube, 2012
"this is why I love internet. I could have gone through lifr thinking this was written by ram jam.
its amazing. I dont think its the best old blues-song Ive ever heard, but it might grow on me. I have, either way, big respect for all these old blues-singers."

21. Chris Moos, 2014
"Thanks for all your posts, RDH. I'll chime in with this: all of us can enjoy music no matter where it comes from. But you have to understand the African-Americans who originated this style have paid a much higher price for the emotions we hear than the white artists.

To ignore the historical context is to miss a lot that's there in the music."
"RDH" is RagtimeDorianHenry, the publisher of this sound file on YouTube.

22. CPD0123a, 2014
"+Jamie Warrior Warlord McCallum +ValGray 1015 +Robert Parker McCollum According to the documentary on Leadbelly by the Smithsonian Channel, it's a stone-cutting song from his time in prison. The bam-a-lam part with the clap is when you hit the stone with your sledge. The rest is to keep time among the group while you ready your next swing. It's not really slavery, it's old-style hard time on a prison chain gang. (Bam-a-lam even sounds like the ring of men hitting it with their sledge hammers in a row when you think about it)"

23. Karl Lafollette, 2014
"This song is about rape white man raping black women back in the day and she gets knocked up with white mans kid , she has the baby and there comes out a blond out her ? am i missing something ?"

24. dwk67, 2014
"Ram Jam's version of this used to get played at sports arenas in the south awhile back but they stopped because of accusations of racism because of the mention of Betty being black. Those white boys in Ram Jam did a smokin' cover version in 1977 of this song that is a tribute to the black blues legend who wrote it, and not racist whatsoever. Political correctness is so asinine."

25. Michael Shapiro, 2014
"I took a music class in college where we listened to this song, and our professor told us that was the sound of leadbelly chopping wood. Maybe he's wrong or maybe he's right, who cares haha."

26. Baddaby, 2014
"Have you ever chopped wood? That sounds alot more like a man slapping his own thigh than chopping wood."

27. Michael Shapiro, 2014
"Or perhaps leadbelly was trying to emulate the sound of chopping wood/laboring while singing"

28. elliott nunez, 2015
"First recorded in the field by John and Alan Lomax in 1933. Also performed A Capella by convict James Baker and group at Central State Farm Sugarland Texas.Leadbelly recorded it later 1939 I believe..Lead Belly and the Lomax boys were longtime associates....In prison perhaps?"

29. Reply
Cool Breeze, 2015
"Thanks for the info. It appears that James "Iron Head" Baker was the first person to sing it acapella and have it recorded by the Lomaxes. The recording is also on YouTube."

30. Hans Josef, 2016
"+elliott nunez Yeah, and before it was recorded it was sung by sharecroppers around the turn of the century, whose parents taught it to them. "

31. Reply
Jennifer Thomas, 2016
"+elliott nunez Lomax Father and Son were traveling the south looking for more songs to add to their collection of music. They came across him in their travels. You are right with the acapella of James Baker and friends. By that time Lead Belly was out of jail. When he made his friendship with the Lomax's he went to visit prisons with them looking for songs to record for them...when he ran out of his own of course."

32. David Little, 2015
"Well actually lead belly's version of black betty is not an original song by any means, his is a version of a much earlier folk song which is apparently adapted from a marching tune used by british soldiers ( & possibly others??? ) who called their muskets black bettie's because they had black painted stocks....who knew ;-)"

33. Reply
Jen Wen, 2015
"+David Little everybody quotes the same quotes from wikipedia.(which we all know isnt a reliable source.) but always seem to overlook the facts that James Baker and his partner was the first to do it, Leadbelly was the 2nd. Waaaaaay before the talk of it being about a musket and ball, is was about a bull whip, used to whip prisoners."

34. Reply
David Little, 2015
+Jen Wen Well that is why I used the term "apparently" as I was opening a discussion on alternative possibilities to the origin of the music & reinforced it by subsequently stating that I was "philosophising" about it's origins & to categorically state that you know who did a particular song first is shall I say without trying to be offensive, sounds more dubious than any wikipedia page. There is also some references that link it it to heavy drinking & that black betty refers to a type of bottle. So basically I don't think anyone really knows. Although given that the blues partly originated from traditional songs then I don't think it's beyond the realms of possibility that it has a long history & no single person invented it.

Version #3: James Iron Head Baker - Black Betty (1933)

Adelfred, Uploaded on Feb 9, 2010

"Black Betty" (Roud 11668) is a 20th century African-American work song often credited to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter as the author, though the earliest recordings are not by him. Some sources claim it is one of Lead Belly's many adaptations of earlier folk material;[1] in this case an 18th century marching cadence about a flint-lock musket.
The song was first recorded in the field by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933, performed a cappella by the convict James Baker (also known as Iron Head) and a group at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas.

The Lomaxes were recording for the Library of Congress and later field recordings in 1934, 1936 and 1939 also include versions of "Black Betty". It was recorded commercially in New York in 1939 for the Musicraft label by blues artist Lead Belly, as part of a medley with two other work songs: "Looky Looky Yonder" and "Yellow Woman's Doorbells".Lead Belly had a long association with the Lomaxes, and had himself served time in State prison farms.

The origin and meaning of the lyrics are subject to debate. Some sources claim the song is derived from an 18th century marching cadence about a flint-lock musket with a black painted stock; the "bam-ba-lam" lyric referring to the sound of the gunfire. Soldiers in the field were said to be "hugging Black Betty". In this interpretation, the musket was superseded by its "child", a musket with an unpainted walnut stock known as a "Brown Bess".

In "Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876", there is a short section describing wedding ceremonies and marriage customs on page 12. Caldwell describes a wedding tradition where two young men from the bridegroom procession were challenged to run for a bottle of whiskey. This challenge was usually given when the bridegroom party was about a mile from the destination home where the ceremony was to be had. Upon securing prize, referred to as "Black Betty" the winner of the race would bring the bottle back to the bridegroom and his party. The whiskey was offered to the bridegroom first and then successively to each of the grooms friends.

The earliest meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) was a liquor bottle.In January 1736, Benjamin Franklin published The Drinker's Dictionary in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering 228 round-about phrases for being drunk. One of those phrases is "He's kiss'd black Betty."

David Hackett Fischer, in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), states that "Black Betty" was a common term for a bottle of whisky in the borderlands of northern England/southern Scotland, and later in the backcountry areas of the eastern United States.

In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka "Big Head"), Reese stated that the term "Black Betty" was used by prisoners to refer to the "Black Maria" — the penitentiary transfer wagon.
Here's the lyrics to James Iron Head Baker - Black Betty (given without the bamalam exclamation) as published in the sound file review of this YouTube video , published by mokaey Uploaded on Dec 17, 2008. A commenter credited this version to James Iron Head Baker.

"Oh black betty (x2)
Black Betty where you come from (x2)
Well I come from.....?...
Well I'm going to Corsicana
Black betty what's your number (x2)
750 (x2)
Oh lord (lordy) black betty (x2)
Black betty had a baby (x2)
and the damn thing crazy
ah, she dipped it's head in gravy (x2)
Oh lord black betty (x2)
Black betty where she (you) come from (x4)
Oh lord (lordy) black betty (x2)
Now (oh) the baby had blue eyes (x2)
Well it must have been the captains (x2)
Oh lordy black betty (x2)

lyrics got from blindboyblue take a look at his page if you liked this video."
Note: The publisher's review for this sound file includes profanity and the "n word" (fully spelled out). Those portions aren't quoted in this pancocojams post.

I'm not sure which blindboyblue page this publisher is referring to.

From American Ballads and Folk Songs by John Lomax (originally published: January 1, 1934)

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Black Betty had a baby,
Black Betty had a baby,

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
It de cap'n's baby,
It de cap'n's baby,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
But she didn' feed de baby,
But she didn' feed de baby,

Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Oh, Lawd, Black Betty,
Black Betty, where'd you come from?
Black Betty, where'd you come from?

Note given on that website with these lyrics: "Black Betty was the whip used in some southern prisons."

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I believe the phrase 'Black Betty' was originally not a reference to a person, but a bottle. Here's why:

    I looked in Oxford English Dictionary for 'Black Betty' and they only have an entry for a 'betty'- on its own, no adjective - as meaning a kind of bottle. In fact they quote Webster's US dictionary definition of it as a type of round-bodied bottle with a long neck (similar in shape to a chemistry flask). That's from early 19th c. presumably, and Webster says nothing about it being particularly a liquor bottle.

    OED also specify this usage is 'only U.S.' but then they quote an earlier (1725) British usage of the word 'betty' as also meaning some common type of bottle. So, together with the Franklin quote at 2 above, I'd guess that a round-bodied liquor bottle was nicknamed a 'Betty' by at least the early 18th c., perhaps first in Britain, but then later the word died out here, but not in America, where it referred both to a liquor bottle and its contents.

    I speculate this because there is an article in 'The Times' (London) from 1811, which uses the phrase 'Black Betty' in a confused way. The article is about Tom Paine the revolutionary, and deeply hostile. It's chiefly concerned to portray him as a hopeless drunk. The article says:"In the spring of 1804, he returned to his farm at New Rochelle; he engaged an old woman, Black Betty, who it seems was nearly his match for drunkenness..."(The Times 8 October 1811, p.3).

    I doubt this ever happened. Possibly Paine did have a problem with alcohol, and somebody in America used slang to describe it and say he was 'kissing Black Betty' too much, and the reference was misunderstood as referring to an actual person, and embroidered into a portrait of a drunken housekeeper.

    And if it could happen once, it could happen again. If African-Americans were extemporising a drinking song reference to 'Black Betty' into a worksong, they might well treat the name as referring to a person. After all, if you're extemporising you can develop a humorous narrative about a person more easily than you can about a bottle.

    There's a museum in London with a collection of 17th c. bottles, including the round-bodied types. They look like this:

    Just showing off now I know how to do links ;)

    1. Oh no! My link didn't work! What went wrong??

    2. With regard to your link not working, did you get a message in red that indicated what was missing in the link?

      The opening tag:

      The first time the address for the website should be prefaced by (a href followed by an equal sign = and then followed immediately by a quotation mark " which is immediately followed by that url address.

      but instead of a symbol for parenthesis use a less than sign

      After the end of the first url address type in a quotation mark " followed by a greater than sign then immediately type in the url address immediately followed by greater than sign a left facing slash followed by the letter a and immediately followed by a lesser than sign for a closing tag.

      Sounds complicated doesn't it?

    3. Here's a url for the greater than and lesser than signs:

      I know that my instructions for making html links sounds complicated, but it gets easier the more you do it- and if you do something wrong -which I still sometimes do- that message in red helps point out what the mistake is.

    4. Hi, slam2011.

      I'm not discounting that the original meaning of the term "Black Betty" may have been from the UK and may have meant a liquor bottle or a musket...

      What I'm suggesting is that in the 1930s Black folk's songs about "Black Betty" the term "Black Betty" probably didn't mean a liquor bottle or a musket or any of the other references that White folks had given to that term.

      John Lomax noted in his 1934 book that Black inmates use the term "Black Betty" to refer to a "whip". Although that might have been the main meaning for Black folk's use of that term, "Black Betty" might also have been used as a referent for a woman within the same song - for instance, references to Black Betty having a child, a references to that child being the captain's baby (a White man's baby), and the child not being fed, and going wild etc.

      I suppose that the reason for the musket being called "Black Betty" was because its stock was the color "black" and "Betty" because begins with a "b" - this was therefore alliteration. I suppose that the reason why liquor was called "Black Betty" was because the liquor so named was dark in color.

      As to the nickname "Betty"- Betty was a very frequently used nickname for the name "Elizabeth". I remember reading somewhere that in the early 20th century it was customary for White people to use the name "Elizabeth" for Black women even though that might not have been their given name- similar to the use of "Becky" for White women that is the topic of this post. I'll try to find some source for this point. Would you please also try to see if you find any referent for that?

    5. When I wrote "similar to the use of "Becky" for White women that is the topic of this post" I meant the pancocojams post

    6. I haven't found any source yet that indicates that the name Elizabeth (or the nickname form of that name such as "Lizzy"?) was used by White folks as a generic name for Black females. But the googling that I've done thus far documents how the name "Elizabeth" was a very popular name for White females and Black females.

      Here's a link to a very interesting article that I found about 18th century mixed race woman Dido Elizabeth Belle who lived with her aristocratic White family. Her White cousin Elizabeth Murray also lived with her in that mansion. A recent movie was made about Dido Bell.

    7. Other comments written in response to some comments written here about the names "Betty" and "Elizabeth" (and other names) that are found in the somewhat related pancocojams post "The "Clean" Meaning of The Name "Becky" In African American Culture"

    8. You are actually very close. This is where it all began. Elizabeth Key or Kaye was born in 1630 to an unnamed black slave mother and Thomas Key, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.

      Key represented pre-Revolutionary Warwick County (today's Newport News), but his wife lived across the James River in Isle of Wight County, where she owned considerable property.

      The Keys were English-born and likely considered "ancient planters," pioneers who had come to Virginia before 1616, remained for three years,
      paid their own passage and survived the Indian massacre of 1622.

      At first, Thomas Key tried to deny that he had fathered Elizabeth, blaming instead an unidentified "Turk." Paternity became an issue years later when
      Elizabeth needed to prove in court that her father was a free man.

      A man who knew the family, Nicholas Jurnew, 53, testified in 1655 that he had "heard a flying report at Yorke that Elizabeth a Negro Servant to the
      Estate of Col. John Mottrom (deceased) was the Childe of Mr. Kaye but ...Mr. Kaye said that a Turke of Capt. Mathewes was Father to the Girle."

      However, paternity was established.

      Elizabeth Newman, 80, testified that "it was a common Fame in Virginia that Elizabeth a Molletto (Turk), now(e) servant to the Estate of Col. John Mottram, deceased, was the Daughter of Mr. Kaye; and the said Kaye was brought to Blunt-Point Court and there fined for getting his Negro woman with Childe, which said Negroe was the Mother of the said Molletto (Turk), and the said fine was for getting the Negro with Childe which Childe was the said Elizabeth."

      The court documents are pretty dramatic--and sometimes graphic--reading.

      "The deposition of Alice Larrett aged 38 yeares or thereabouts Sworne and Examined Sayth that Elizabeth ...twenty five yeares of age or thereabouts and that I saw her mother goe to bed to her Master many times and that I heard her mother Say that she was Mr. Keyes daughter."

      Once paternity was established, Key didn't try to duck his duty again. Elizabeth, who was referred to as "Black Besse" in various legal documents of the period, was baptized in the Church of England. Sometime before his death in 1636, Key put Elizabeth in the custody of her godfather, Humphrey Higginson. Higginson was required to care for her as his own child and set her free in nine years when she was 15 years old.

      At this time, both black and white servants were likely to be indentured for a period of years and it was common for them to get their freedom. In
      Elizabeth's case, her father did not intend for her to be kept as a slave, but for Higginson to be her guardian until she was of age.

      It's not clear what happened, but Higginson did not keep his promise. He was obligated not only to care for her, but to take her with him if he were to return to England. And he did return to England, but left Elizabeth behind and in the ownership of a Col. John Mottram, Northumberland County's first settler.

    9. Elizabeth, at age 10 in about 1640, was one of the first non-native settlers in the wilderness of Northumberland County. Her future changed dramatically as Mottram took her 90 miles away from her birthplace to be a servant. She may have never seen her mother again. She was without a contract and, conceivably, could be a slave forever.

      There is no record of Elizabeth's life for about the next 15 years, but beginning in 1650 events unfolded that would change Elizabeth's life forever and make her a figure in American history.

      That year, Mottram brought a group of 20 men, white indentured servants from England, to Coan Hall, his estate in Northumberland County. For every sponsored servant, a Virginian would receive 50 acres of land. Each indenture would serve for six years.

      Among those indentures was 16-year-old William Grinstead, a young lawyer. Although Grinstead's parents aren't known, it's likely that he was a younger son of an attorney who learned his father's trade. Under English common law, only the eldest son could inherit the father's property, and many younger sons sought their fortunes across the Atlantic.

      Mottram soon recognized Grinstead's value and had him represent him in legal matters. And it was at Coan Hall that Grinstead met Elizabeth Key. They fell in love and had two sons, John and William, but indentures could not be married. And Elizabeth's future was uncertain without freedom.

      When Mottram died in 1655, Grinstead went to work. He sued the estate for Elizabeth's freedom. She had been a servant for 19 years--15 for Mottram.

      The court granted her freedom, but the decision was appealed to a higher court, which overturned the decision and ruled that Elizabeth was a slave.

      Grinstead took the case to the Virginia General Assembly, which appointed a committee to investigate and decided to send the case back to the courts for retrial.

      Elizabeth finally won her freedom on three counts. By English common law, the status of the father determined the status of the child. As Elizabeth's father was free, she was also set free.

      In addition to Elizabeth's father's status as a free man, she was a baptized Christian. A Christian could not be held in slavery. Beside that, her
      indenture was for nine years and she had served twice that long.

      She not only gained her freedom, but the court ordered Mottram's estate to compensate her with corn and clothes for her lost years.

      When William won the court battle for Elizabeth's freedom, they were not free to marry, as he was still a servant himself. They had to wait until he
      completed his indenture in 1656.

      In a bitter turn of history for many, the slave paternity law was changed in 1662. The rewritten law said the mother's status--slave or free-- determined the status of a child. Starting in 1667, being a Christian did not save black Americans from slavery.

      Elizabeth slipped under the wire. And she had a very good lawyer.

      Elizabeth (or Black Bessie) became a household name to all negroes and her fame spread throughout Great Britain a did her marriage to Willam Grinstead which was the first interracial marriage in America. She was a beacon of hope to many and allowed the church in the north to adopt a slave free doctrine which eventually brought about the Civil War, and the freedom that African Americans enjoy today. It's very possible if it wasn't for Willam Grinstead's tenacity to free Elizabeth from slavery and sue the Col's estate, we would still be under slavery today.
      This information was complied by Martha Hardcastle, a freelance writer for Dayton Daily News. The sources for this post include:

      Records of Northumberland County, Virginia: I used the records for 1652-1665. The records are available online through the University of
      Chicago at

      PBS: An article by Frontline called The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families is available at

    10. Genealogy Web site: Lita Macasieb's `A Generation of Secrets' is at Lita's husband, Jerry Wilcox, is a distant Grinstead cousin. (I think this link is dead now as it was compiled in 2003)

      Consequently, a famous person from this blood line of Grinstead's is Johnny Depp.

    11. Zachary Hadden, thanks for sharing this fascinating information about Elizabeth Key Grinstead.

      I've decided to publish a separate pancocojams post on Elizabeth Key Grinstead. Much of that post will feature your comments and the sources that you cited. I'll add that link here when I've published it.

      Thanks again for sharing this information on pancocojams.

    12. Here's the link to that pancocojams post: How 17th Century Elizabeth Key Grinstead Impacted Virginia Slavery Laws & Names Of Her Famous Descendants

  2. I query the source for David Little's assertion at no. 32 above, that a British Army musket was ever called a 'Black Betty'. OED has 'Brown Bess' as the standard nickname for an army musket from 1709+, apparently due to the use of walnut wood for the stock.

    I also don't think this folk song could derive from a British marching song. I'm no musicologist, but the rhythm and the call-and-response structure very much suggest an African-American origin to me.

  3. Just correcting myself - OED actually says the gun was originally referred to as a 'brown musket' (1709), but by 1785 was familiarly known as a 'brown bess'. But never, it seems, called a Black Betty.

    1. slam2011, you've found an important correction to that Wikipedia article on Black Betty.

      I don't know how to suggest corrections or make corrections on Wikipedia. Do you know how to do that and if so, would you please make that correction?

  4. I went on Wikipedia and amended the article. Easier than creating links:)

    1. Oh!! I'm so proud of you :o)

      Thanks, slam2011.

      You notice that I'm not asking for instructions ;o)

  5. The lyrics sound to me like he says "well I come from Corsicana.Well i'm going to Texarkana

    1. Unknown, thanks for that transcription suggestion for that line!

  6. James “Iron Head” Baker, 1933, recorded at a Texas prison work farm by John Lomax.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous for that information. Here's the hyperlink to the page that you shared: