Black Betty (Leadbelly/Ram Jam) – Spiderbait 2004

Finley in southern NSW is a tiny rural town close to the Victorian border, in 1991 Janet English (bass), Mark “Kram” Maher (drums/vocals) and Damian Whitty (guitar) formed a garage punk band briefly known as Candy Spuds, then Spiderbaby, and ultimately Spiderbait, they relocated to Melbourne, which was closer than Sydney to their home town, and started gigging there.

They played in gritty inner city pubs like the Tote Hotel in Collingwood and in 1995 inked a recording contract with Polydor, they were basically a thrash-pop style of band who featured buzzing guitars, thumping percussion and a left-of-centre musical sensibility which saw only two of their first fifteen singles make the top 40 – Calypso in 1997 and their belting, turbo-fueled cover of the Ram Jam hit from 1977, Black Betty.spiderbait2The song has a fascinating history being an early adaptation of an African-American work song by legendary bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (above) in the 1930’s. The inspiration for the title Black Betty has variously been ascribed to a British army flint-lock musket (the “bam-a-lam” lyric echoed the sound of gunfire), a bottle of whiskey (Benjamin Franklin used the phrase “He kiss’d Black Betty” to describe a state of inebriation), a bull whip used on road gang prisoners (below), and a jailer or policeman’s car, also known as a Black Mariah.spiderbait3One of the earliest recordings of Black Betty was by musicologists Alan and John Lomax in the 1930’s as part of their extensive collection of folk and blues music which became an integral part of the US Library of Congress collection, and they believed that Leadbelly’s song was about a two-timing woman, which was a suitable and frequent topic for “men to moan the blues about”.

Manfred Mann had recorded a version of the song in 1968 but it was New York hard rock band, Ram Jam, that took Black Betty into the US top twenty for the first time in 1977. Ram Jam’s guitarist Bill Bartlett had recorded a longer version of Black Betty, with his previous band Starstruck, which was produced by the famous bubblegum music duo of Jerry Kasenatz and Jeff Katz. The Ram Jam version was punchy, aggressive, hard-riffing 70’s rock, in the promo video Bartlett sings lead vocals while the band performs the song on the front lawn of a suburban house. The image of regular lead singer Myke Scavone, cooling his heels in the background, and not particularly enjoying Bartlett dominating the video, of what would be the band’s only hit, was memorable.

Spiderbait had enjoyed mixed fortunes over the decade prior to the release of Black Betty, their first five singles failed to enter the top 40, although their first three albums, which all featured cartoonish characters on the sleeve art, were all top 20 hits and they had established an indie/alternarock fanbase locally.spiderbait5The album Tonight Alright was a turning point in their musical evolution, recorded in Weed, California with producer Sylvia Massy (Red Hot Chili Peppers, REM, Tool), the songs reflected a broader musical palette. Janet English revealed more of a pop music sensibility on several tracks, electronica-influenced songs also featured, while “Kram” Maher delivered manic, tonsil-tearing vocals, and pounding percussion, on what became Spiderbait’s biggest hit, Black Betty.

The promo clip features Kram pounding a drum kit mounted on what appears to be a “mother’s worry” hot rod, drag racing other vehicles and careering around the streets, while performing the song, it was #1 locally for three weeks and occupied the charts for 21 weeks, it also climbed into the US Top 40 at #35 for the band’s first international hit.

The song’s lyrics are controversial, Ram Jam’s version of Black Betty was boycotted by the NAACP and other civil rights groups in the US because it was said to reinforce negative stereotypes of African- Americans. Spiderbait went into hiatus in 2004 and pursued solo projects, Janet English started a family and the band have reformed occasionally for one-off concerts and released a new album in 2013.

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