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Black Betty’s Prison

In 1933 John Lomax and his son Alan began their journey to compile an anthology of American ballads and folk songs for the Library of Congress. They wanted to particularly emphasize the contributions of African Americans. At the time Texas prisons contained a disproportionate number of African American men. In 1926, Robert Winslow Gordon, (Lomax’s predecessor at the Library of Congress) wrote in the New York Times that “Nearly every type of song is to be found in our prisons and penitentiaries”. Lomax and his son believed that prisoners are “Thrown on their own resources for entertainment . . . still sing, especially the long-term prisoners who have been confined for years and who have not yet been influenced by jazz and the radio, the distinctive old-time Negro melodies.” (They wrote this in application for the grant that allowed them to begin this anthology).

They began scouring Texas prisons and would discover folk songs that would later become some of the iconic lyrics of Rock and Roll. Songs like, ‘The midnight Special’, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘He was a friend of mine’ all got their start as African American folk songs first recorded by the Lomax’s.

One such song, Black Betty, was first recorded in Central State Prison Farm in Sugar land Texas. Although it was made famous by Lead Belly, the original recording was of fellow prisoner James ‘Iron Head’ Baker in April 1933. The nickname Iron head had originated from an incident in which a tree fell on Bakers head during work detail, breaking apart the branches but leaving his head unscathed.

The Lomax’s recorded Baker numerous times in following years. Dates can be found here.

Black Betty was considered to be numerous things over the years from the songs conception, but most commonly a musket or the black car that took inmates to and from the prison.

Three years after the Lomax’s had made Lead Belly a folk success they returned to do the same with Baker. By that stage Baker was back in Sugar land serving a 99 year sentence for being a habitual burglar. The Lomax family used their connections to get him out on parole to tour the south’s prisons, after which he would be a free man. He was originally going to set up a business weaving mats out of corn shucks, a skill he had learned in prison. However he was not the success as Lead Belly had been and did not take to the life and found himself back in prison just three years later.

The library of Congress has recordings and photographs documented by John and Alan Lomax. For further reading click here.

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