""Black Betty" (Roud 11668) is a 20th century African-American work song often credited to Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter as the author, though the earliest recordings are not by him. Some sources claim it is one of Lead Belly's many adaptations of earlier folk material; in this case an 18th century marching cadence about a flint-lock rifle"
I love Ram Jam's version the best.. it can always put me in a good mood.
Here's what I got from a thing on Wikipedia about Ram Jam's version "While in Starstruck, Bartlett took Leadbelly's 59 second long "Black Betty," wrote music for it and arranged it and recorded and released it on the group's own TruckStar label. Black Betty became a regional hit, then was picked up by producers in New York who formed a group around Bartlett called Ram Jam. They re-released the song, and it became a hit nationally. The Ram Jam "recording" was actually the same one originally recorded by Starstruck, the band at that time composed of Bartlett, lead guitar and vocals, Tom Kurtz, rhythm guitar and vocals, David Goldflies, bass, David Fleeman on drums. The rest of the tracks on the first studio album containing "Black Betty" was played by the Ram Jam lineup. The song caused quite a stir with the NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality calling for a boycott due to the lyrics. Despite the controversy, the song reached number 18 on the singles chart in 1977 in the U.S. and Top Ten in the United Kingdom and Australia, while the Ram Jam album reached the U.S. Top 40"
"The origin and meaning of the lyrics are subject to debate. Some sources claim the song is derived from an 18th century marching cadence about a flint-lock musket with a black painted stock; the "bam-ba-lam" lyric referring to the sound of the gunfire. Soldiers in the field were said to be "hugging Black Betty". In this interpretation, the rifle was superseded by its "child", a rifle with an unpainted walnut stock known as a "Brown Bess".
The earliest meaning of "Black Betty" in the United States (from at least 1827) was a liquor bottle. In January 1736, Benjamin Franklin published The Drinker's Dictionary in the Pennsylvania Gazette offering 228 round-about phrases for being drunk. One of those phrases is "He's kiss'd black Betty."
David Hackett Fischer, in his book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989), states that "Black Betty" was a common term for a bottle of whiskey in the borderlands of northern England/southern Scotland, and later in the backcountry areas of the eastern United States.
In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka "Big Head"), Reese stated that the term "Black Betty" was used by prisoners to refer to the "Black Maria" — the penitentiary transfer wagon."
all quotes from Wikipedia.com