James "Iron Head" Baker was one of the inmates recorded by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s as part of the Library of Congress-sanctioned Archive of American Folk Song project. Baker (his real name is thought to be Ruben Avery Burrage) got his colorful prison nickname after a tree fell on him during a work detail, and while the tree ended up with several broken branches, Baker emerged unscathed. Little else is known about the man, although it is clear that Baker was a naturally gifted singer, who made up in emotional nuance what he lacked in professional skill and opportunity, and John and Alan Lomax returned to him time and time again for folk material, so much so that it is possible to trace Baker's movements through the prison system simply by listing his recording dates.
On July 5, 1933, he recorded five tracks at Central State Farm in Sugarland, TX, followed by eight more there (including the first recorded version of "Black Betty") in December 1933. He recorded 14 more pieces (including three takes of "Little John Henry") at Central State Farm in May 1934, and nine more tracks in October of 1934. He was in Dallas, TX, two years later on April 7, 1936, where he recorded two more songs. A month later finds Baker incarcerated at the state penitentiary in Rainford, FL, where on May 3 and May 5 he recorded two different versions of "Go Down Old Hannah." Still later in the month, on May 15, he tracked two songs at the state penitentiary in Columbia, SC. By May 29, 1936, Baker is in Washington, D.C., where he recorded nearly two dozen songs, apparently by this time a free man, although that didn't last, because three years later he was back paying penance in good old Texas, recording three tracks at Ramsey State Farm in Otey, TX. ~ Steve Leggett