The origin and meaning of this song are controversial and have been researched by many. I won’t attempt to repeat all the discussions here, but a good article to start with may be this one. Theories from a centuries old folk song about a bottle of whiskey, a gun, a work song, a marching cadence, an actual woman, a prison transport wagon, or a whip used by prison guards have been offered.
Let’s start with the earliest known recording of the song:
The song was first recorded in the field by US musicologists John and Alan Lomax in December 1933, performed a cappella by the convict James “Iron Head” Baker, with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up, at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas (a State prison farm). Baker was 63 years old at the time of the recording.
Alan Lomax travelled with his father, John A. Lomax on field recording trips during the 30s, collecting folk songs and tunes from various states in the USA. They collected songs for the Library of Congress Archive. Until that time, John Lomax had been an administrator at a college, and had collected cowboy songs, as a hobby. As a result of the Depression and economic crash of the 30s, John Lomax became jobless, and started collecting folk songs and related material on a full-time basis. In 1934, John Lomax became honorary consultant and head of the Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song.
By the time Alan was 23 years old he was assistant director of the Archive of Folk Song at the Library. After special service in World War II, Alan became the Director of Folk Music for Decca Records. He recorded a version himself in 1958.
The Lomaxes recorded a version on May 10, 1939 by Mose “Clear Rock” Platt at Hotel Blazilmar, Taylor, Texas. It is in the Library Of Congress as a part of the Southern Mosaic: The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip (895).
Another notable version was published in 1934 in the Lomaxes book “American Ballads and Folk Songs”. It was recorded commercially in New York in April 1939 for the Musicraft Records label by Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Musicraft issued the recording in 1939 as part of a 78rpm five-disc album entitled “Negro Sinful Songs sung by Lead Belly”.
While Lead Belly’s 1939 recording was also performed a cappella (with hand claps in place of hammer blows), most subsequent versions added guitar accompaniment. These include folk-style recordings in 1964 by Odetta (as a medley with “Looky Yonder”, with staccato guitar strums in place of hand claps), and Alan Lomax himself.
Odetta Holmes was an important figure in the American folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, she influenced many of the key figures of the folk-revival of that time, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mavis Staples, and Janis Joplin. I was unable to locate her recording of this song.
In 1968 Manfred Mann released a version of the song, arranged for a band, with the title and lyrics changed to “Big Betty”, on their LP “Mighty Garvey!”. It is definitely “updated” for the RocknRoll audience of the time.
“Black Betty”, in one version or another, has been covered by many artists over the years. From Sir Tom Jones (yes, the one that sang “It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat”) to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Spiderbait, Meatloaf, Melvins, ZZ Top, and Ministry. Of course one of the most known recent versions was made popular by Ram Jam in 1977.
To go down the rabbit hole a little deeper, Bill Bartlett (guitarist for Ram Jam) was originally in the group Lemon Pipers who had the one hit wonder “Green Tambourine”.