First recorded by James “Iron Head” Baker (1933).
Also recorded by Lead Belly (1939), Starstruck (1975).
Hit version by Ram Jam (US #18/UK #7/AUS #3 1977).
From American Songwriter: “According to reports, the song was first formally recorded in 1933 by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax. It was performed a cappella by convict James ‘Iron Head’ Baker and a group of prisoners at Central State Farm, in Sugar Land, Texas. At the time, Baker was 63 years old.
“Lead Belly, who had a strong relationship with the Lomaxes, recorded a version in 1939 in New York for the Musicraft Records label. Musicraft released that recording that year as part of a five-disc album, Negro Sinful Songs sung by Lead Belly. Lead Belly’s version was also recorded a cappella, with handclaps. Later versions, though, utilized guitar accompaniment. In 1964, for example, Odetta recorded a version with musical instruments.
“Frontman Bill Bartlett formed a band called Starstruck early in his career. While in that band, the musician took Lead Belly’s 59-second version of ‘Black Betty’ and, in 1975, released a revised version on his band’s TruckStar label. It became a regional hit.
“Later, producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz formed a new group around Bartlett in 1977 in New York City, which they called Ram Jam. They released a version of ‘Black Betty’ and it became a national hit. It reached #18 on the singles charts in the U.S. and it was also a Top-10 hit in the U.K. and Australia. Since then, the song has appeared in a number of pop culture arenas, including the 2005 film The Dukes of Hazzard, and in figure skater Javier Fernandez’s performance at the World Championships in 2015.”
Lead Belly, “Black Betty” (1939):
Starstruck, “Black Betty” (1975):
Ram Jam, “Black Betty” (1977):