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jon 385 Tracing The History Of Black Betty   From A Southern State Prison To The Superbowl

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (Photo by Scott Gries/Getty Images)

Story by Zack Nechvatal

She appeared last night to millions during the Superbowl courtesy of VW in promotion of their new 2012 Beetle, but the jukebox favorite “Black Betty,” made famous by the band [lastfm]Ram Jam[/lastfm], is much, much older.

Covered by artists from [lastfm]Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds[/lastfm] to [lastfm]Tom Jones[/lastfm], last night’s “update” of the song was done by [lastfm]Jon Spencer Blues Explosion[/lastfm].

“Black Betty originated as an African-American work song and was first recorded in the early 1930s by James “Iron Head” Baker, a convict in Central State Farm, (a state prison farm) located in Sugar Land, Texas.

In 1939, the song was performed by [lastfm]Lead Belly[/lastfm], (who had himself served time in state prison farms). He recorded the song for the Musicraft label in New York, and it was later released commercially.

Rockers [lastfm]Ram Jam[/lastfm] recorded the song in 1977 under the Epic label, and the track became an instant classic, later sparking a series of dance remixes. This is still the most well-known take on the song.

[lastfm]Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds[/lastfm] took a stab at the song in 1986…

…And as part of his millennium comeback, [lastfm]Tom Jones[/lastfm] covered the track in 2002, incorrectly dedicating the song to [lastfm]Lead Belly[/lastfm].

Since then, there have been a series of further remixes and mash-ups produced and last night we can add the [lastfm]Jon Spencer Blues Explosion[/lastfm]’s cover to the list.

Everything Blues Breakers


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