Trying to track down the history of the lyrics to folk songs or even phrases or titles can be a real challenge. Debates continue to this day about whether the name Black Betty was referring to a musket, a bottle of whiskey, a whip, or a penitentiary transfer wagon.
No matter where the phrase started, Black Betty is the name of a song that was first recorded in a Texas State Prison Farm in 1933. John Lomax attended Harvard in 1906 and studied under George Lyman Kittredge. George encouraged his students to get out in the field and record the actual music people were singing. While George may have focused on the songs cowboys were singing, it was a short step that led John and his son Alan to recording the folk songs in the South. In 1933, they recorded songs at a Texas State Prison Farm. One recording was Black Betty as sung a cappella by James “Iron Head” Baker with some help from other inmates. They included the lyrics to the song in their 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs.
Lead Belly recorded a single with the song as part of a medley with Looky Yonder in 1939. The recording did not include any guitar picking, just some clapping on a guitar. Odetta updated the song with some guitar work replacing the clapping sounds in 1964.
Manfred Mann formed in 1962 and became a part of the British Invasion in 1964 when they covered the Exciters single Do Wah Diddy Diddy and topped the Hot 100. They covered Dylan’s song The Mighty Quinn in 1968 and scored a top ten record. They released an album built around the hit record that contained their version of Black Betty, although they re-titled the song Big Betty. The band broke up in 1969 and reformed as Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and they updated Big Betty in a live performance on the BBC in 1972.
The Lemon Pipers were a band formed in Ohio by college students who had played in multiple groups. Buddah Records signed the group and allowed them to write and record their first single. When the single failed, Buddah called them back into the studio and coerced them into recording a song they were not enthusiastic about: the bubble gum single, Green Tambourine. The record topped the charts, and they recorded a few more bubble gum singles and some hard rock album cuts before disbanding. Three of the members formed the group Starstruck.
The lead guitarist, Bill Bartlett, continued with the group after the other two Lemon Pipers left Starstruck. Rhythm guitarist and vocalist Tom Kurtz, bass player David Goldflies, and drummer David Fleeman rounded out the group. Bill created a new arrangement of Black Betty, and the group recorded the song and released it on their own TruckStar label. The single became a regional hit, but everybody left the group except for Bill. The New York producers added a new lineup of musicians to the group and renamed the group Ram Jam. The new group recorded enough new material for an album. The record company edited the original Starstruck single instead of re-recording it and re-released it on Epic Records with the new group name. All those releases of the single had Ledbetter listed as the author of the song.
The Ram Jam single reached #18 on the Hot 100 in the US and peaked at #7 in the UK in 1977. The group recorded a second album in 1978 but never reached the charts again.
A lot of groups have covered Black Betty; Pitbull and Blake Shelton recorded the most recent version, now re-titled as Get Ready.