Friday, April 29, 2016

What "Black Betty" & "Brown Bess" REALLY Mean

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents information about the early meanings of the term "Black Betty" and the term "Brown Bess". These early meanings of "Betty Betty" aren't the same as the meaning/s of that term in the early 20th century African American originated song "Black Betty" (with its "Bam ba Lam") refrain. Also, it seems to me that the term "Black Betty" may have more than one meaning in the same song.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Addendum #1 to this post provides information about the term "Black Bill".

Addendum #2 to this post provides excerpts from an online article about Black (including Black/White) people in 18th century England. That information augments points that are made about one theory about the origin of the term "Black Betty" as well as the documented origin of the term "Brown Bess."

This is a companion post to the earlier pancocojams post 1930s Versions Of The Folk Song "Black Betty". The content of that post and its comments considers the meaning of the title and lyrics "Black Betty". Sound file, video, and text (lyric only) examples for four 1930s examples of the song "Black Betty" are included in that post.

To a lesser extent, another earlier pancocojams post The "Clean" Meaning of The Name "Becky" In African American Culture and some of the comments from that post also considered the same subject.

"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...There are numerous recorded versions, including a cappella, folk, and rock arrangements. The best known modern recordings are rock versions by Ram Jam, Tom Jones, and Spiderbait, all of which were hits.

Meaning and origin
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. In the British Army from the early 18th century the standard musket had a walnut stock, and was thus known (by at least 1785) as a 'Brown Bess'. [2] There is no citation however for this firearm or a subsequent model being known as a 'Black Betty'.*

Other sources give the meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) as a liquor bottle.[3][4] 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."[5][6]
"Black Betty" used as an expression for a liquor bottle may ultimately owe its origin to the famous pretty black barmaid who worked at the notorious Tom King's Coffee House in Covent Garden, London, which opened in 1720.**

In Caldwells's Illustrated Combination Centennial Atlas of Washington Co. Pennsylvania of 1876, a short section describes wedding ceremonies and marriage customs, including 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 the 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 groom's friends.[7]

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 1934, John A. and Alan Lomax in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs described the origins of "Black Betty":
"Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song." (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)[8]

John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as "Iron Head") in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song.[9] In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled "'Sinful Songs' of the Southern Negro", Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is "Black Betty".[10] Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war's end that "prisoners sang of 'Black Betty', the driver's whip."[11]
In an interview[12] 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.

Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:
"As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as "Black Betty," though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners' backs, "bam-ba-lam."[13]"
Some citations from this Wikipedia article
2. "Brown Bess, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 29 April 2016.

3. Thorton, An American Glossary, p. 66: "Black Betty. A spirit-bottle. Obs. The N.E.D. has Betty, 1725. They became enamored of blue ruin itself. The hug the "black Betty," that contains it, to their bosoms.—Mass. Spy, Oct. 31 [1827]: from the Berkshire American."

4. Collins, Historical Sketches of Kentucky, p. 163: "Pretty late in the night some one would remind the company that the new couple must stand in need of some refreshment; Black Betty, which was the name of the bottle, was called for and sent up the ladder."

5. Benjamin Franklin; William Temple Franklin; William Duane (1859). Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2. Derby & Jackson. p. 496.

6. From the Writings of Benjamin Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette 1736 - 1737

8. Lomax, John A. and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. (1934; reprint, New York: Dover, 1994), 60-1.
*Thanks frequent pancocojams commenter slam2011 for adding this citation from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

**The term "Brown Bess" is also said to have originated as the referent for a prostitute. Read that information found below.

The text (lyrics) for the "Black Betty" song that is referred to the citation given as #8 is included in the earlier pancocojams post

"Brown Bess is a nickname of uncertain origin for the British Army's muzzle-loading smoothbore Land Pattern Musket and its derivatives. This musket was used in the era of the expansion of the British Empire and acquired symbolic importance at least as significant as its physical importance. It was in use for over a hundred years with many incremental changes in its design....

A fire in 1841 at the Tower of London destroyed many muskets before they could be converted. Still, the Brown Bess saw service until the middle of the nineteenth century...

Most male citizens of the American Colonies were required by law to own arms and ammunition for militia duty.[1] The Long Land Pattern was a common firearm in use by both sides in the American War of Independence.[2]
In 1808 Sweden purchased significant numbers from the United Kingdom for use in the Finnish War.

During the Musket Wars (1820s–1830s), Māori warriors used Brown Besses, having purchased them from European traders at the time. Some muskets were sold to the Mexican Army, which used them during the Texas Revolution of 1836 and the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. Brown Besses saw service during the Indian rebellion of 1857. Zulu warriors, who had also purchased them from European traders, used them during the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. One was even used in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.[3]...

Origins of the name
One hypothesis is that the "Brown Bess" was named after Elizabeth I of England, but this lacks support. It is not believed that this name was used contemporaneously with the early Long Pattern Land musket but that the name arose in late years of the 18th century when the Short Pattern and India Pattern were in wide use.

Early uses of the term include the newspaper, the Connecticut Courant in April 1771, which said "... but if you are afraid of the sea, take Brown Bess on your shoulder and march." This familiar use indicates widespread use of the term by that time. The 1785 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a contemporary work which defined vernacular and slang terms, contained this entry: "Brown Bess: A soldier's firelock. To hug Brown Bess; to carry a fire-lock, or serve as a private soldier." Military and government records of the time do not use this poetical name but refer to firelocks, flintlock, muskets or by the weapon's model designations.

Popular explanations of the use of the word "Brown" include that it was a reference to either the colour of the walnut stocks, or to the characteristic brown colour that was produced by russeting, an early form of metal treatment...

Similarly, the word "Bess" is commonly held to either derive from the word arquebus or blunderbuss (predecessors of the musket) or to be a reference to Elizabeth I, possibly given to commemorate her death. More plausible is that the term Brown Bess derived from the German words "brawn buss" or "braun buss", meaning "strong gun" or "brown gun"; King George I, who never spoke English and commissioned its use, was from Germany. Bess may be a corruption of bus. The OED has citations for "brown musket" dating back to the early 18th century which refer to the same weapon. Another suggestion is that the name is simply the counterpart to the earlier Brown Bill.*

However, the origin of the name may be much simpler, if vulgar.
In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes, and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise -
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes -
At Blenheim and Ramillies, fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.

— Rudyard Kipling, "Brown Bess," 1911

Kipling's poem most possibly "hits the mark" although he may have based his poem on an earlier but similar "Brown Bess" poem published "Flights of Fancy (No. 16) in 1792. Of course, the name could have been initially inspired by the older term of the "Brown Bill" and perhaps the barrels were originally varnished brown, but it is well known in literary circles that the name "Brown Bess" during the period in question in the 17th to early 19th centuries is not a reference to a color or a weapon but to simply refer to a wanton prostitute [or harlot]. [4] Such a nickname would have been a delight to the soldiers of the era who were from the lower classes of English and then British society.

So far, the earliest use noted [sic] so far of the term "Brown Bess" was in a 1631 publication, John Done's "POLYDORON: OR A Mescellania of Mo∣rall, Philosophicall, and Theologicall Sen∣tences." at Page 152
Things profferd and easie to come by, diminish them∣selves in reputation & price: for how full of pangs and dotage is a wayling lover, for it may bee some browne bes∣sie? But let a beautie fall a weeping, overpressed with the sicke passion; she favours in our thoughts, something Turnbull.
Italics added by me to highlight these sentences.

That 1631 publication appears to be a plural reference to "brown bessies". Was "Brown Betty" a general referent for Black/White prostitutes similar to "Black Betty" [which was] used as an expression for a liquor bottle may ultimately owe its origin to the famous pretty black barmaid who worked at the notorious Tom King's Coffee House in Covent Garden, London, which opened in 1720. " Read the citations #5 & #6 for this quote in the "Black Betty" section above.

Read information about Black and mixed race (Black/White) people in 16th - 18th century England in Addendum #2 below.

ADDENDUM #1: information about "Brown Bill"
"The bill is a polearm weapon used by infantry in medieval Europe. The bill is similar in size, function and appearance to the halberd, differing mainly in the hooked blade form. Other terms for the bill include English bill, bill hook or bill-guisarme...

Derived originally from the agricultural billhook, the bill consisted of a hooked chopping blade with several pointed projections mounted on a staff. The end of the cutting blade curves forward to form a hook, which is the bill's distinguishing characteristic. In addition, the blade almost universally had one pronounced spike straight off the top like a spear head, and also a hook or spike mounted on the 'reverse' side of the blade. There were many types of bill. English bills tended to be relatively short, with broad chopping heads, while Italian bills (ronche) often had very long thrusting points. The English distinguished between several varieties of bill, including the black, brown and forest bills, but the differences between them are currently not fully understood."

16th century
Early in the 16th century Africans arrived in London when Catherine of Aragon travelled to London and brought a group of her African attendants with her[citation needed]. Around the same time African named trumpeters, who served Henry VII and Henry VIII, came to London. When trade lines began to open between London and West Africa. The first record of an African in London was in 1593. His name was Cornelius. London’s residents started to become fearful of the increased black population. At this time Elizabeth I declared that black "Negroes and black Moors" were to be arrested and expelled from her kingdom, although this did not lead to actual legislation.[2][3]

17th–18th centuries
During this era there was a small rise of black people arriving in London. Britain was involved with the tri-continental slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Black slaves were attendants to sea captains and ex-colonial officials as well as traders, plantation owners and military personnel. This marked growing evidence of the black presence in the northern, eastern and southern areas of London

During this era there was a small rise of black people arriving in London. Britain was involved with the tri-continental slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Black slaves were attendants to sea captains and ex-colonial officials as well as traders, plantation owners and military personnel. This marked growing evidence of the black presence in the northern, eastern and southern areas of London. There were also small numbers of free slaves and seaman from West Africa and South Asia. Many of these people were forced into beggary due to the lack of jobs and racial discrimination.[4][5] There is evidence that black men and women were occasionally discriminated against when dealing with the law because of their skin colour. In 1737 George Scipio was accused of stealing Anne Godfrey's washing, the case rested entirely on whether or not Scipio was the only black man in Hackney at the time.[6]

Around the 1750s London became the home of many of Blacks, Jews, Irish, Germans, and Huguenots. In 1764 The Gentleman's Magazine reported that there was 'supposed to be near 20,000 Negroe servants' -Evidence of the number of black residents in London has been found through registered burials... During this era Lord Mansfield declared that a slave who fled from his master could not be taken by force or sold abroad. This verdict fueled the numbers of Blacks that escaped slavery, and helped send slavery into decline. During this same period many slave soldiers who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War arrived in London"...

From Dido Belle: Britain’s first black aristocrat By Nisha Lilia Diu 06 Jun 2014
[caption under the title]
"Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of an 18th-century naval captain and subject of a new film, was a Lady like no other, discovers Nisha Lilia Diu

The amazing thing about Dido Elizabeth Belle is not that she was mixed-race. Who knows how many white men’s children were born to black slave women in the 18th century? It’s not even that her father was a wealthy English aristocrat – there were plenty of titled captains tearing around the Caribbean at that time, capturing French and Dutch schooners during the Seven Years’ War and making off with their sugar, coffee and other (often human) cargo. The extraordinary thing about Dido Belle is that her father, a 24-year-old Navy officer called John Lindsay, took her home to England and asked his extended family to raise her. And they did. They did it in some style, too.

Belle grew up in Kenwood House in north London. It was the palatial weekend retreat of Lindsay’s uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield, set in landscaped gardens with a view of St Paul’s Cathedral six miles away. Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice, and he made a number of landmark rulings on slavery that were among Britain’s first steps towards abolition. Did Belle’s presence in his home have anything to do with it? Plenty of his contemporaries thought so, and they didn’t admire him for it...

We tend to think of mixed-race children as a modern phenomenon, but London has been a cultural melting pot since at least Roman times. There were around 10,000 black people in the city, and many more of mixed parentage by the time Belle was born in 1761. Lindsay seems to have met Belle’s mother, a slave named Maria, on a captured ship in the West Indies. He was a young bachelor, but already much-feted by the newspapers back home for his exploits."...
Click for information about the 2013 American movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle.

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  1. The references to "Black Betty" and "Brown Bess" may be two of the earliest references to Black (including mixed race) women in England.

    Here are two quotes from this pancocojams post about those terms:
    " "Black Betty" used as an expression for a liquor bottle may ultimately owe its origin to the famous pretty black barmaid who worked at the notorious Tom King's Coffee House in Covent Garden, London, which opened in 1720. (from Wikipedia article about the song "Black Betty")

    ..."it is well known in literary circles that the name "Brown Bess" during the period in question in the 17th to early 19th centuries is not a reference to a color or a weapon but to simply refer to a wanton prostitute [or harlot]" (from the Wikipedia article about "Brown Bess").

  2. There was a woman referred to as 'Black Luce' or 'Lucy Negro' who ran a brothel in Shakespeare's London. Very little is known about her, and she may not have been Black at all - perhaps only an Englishwoman with darker colouring than usual.

    Some literary historians have tried to link her with the so-called 'Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's sonnets, who he describes as having startlingly black eyes, and black hair; but her skin colour is a bit undefined. At one point she's said to have 'dun' breasts, (i.e. brown) but elsewhere he's less clear.

    Because S also praises her as a skilled musician, some people think she might have been a woman of Italian or Jewish descent.(There was a family of Italian Jews who were musicians at the royal court.)

    If you want a really early reference to Black British people, look up 'Ivory Bangle Lady' on YouTube - she was late Roman empire :)