Blues great Big Joe Williams is credited with writing this song, but it was developed from a folk song titled "Long John
," which was recorded in 1934 by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. That recording captures the song being sung by black prisoners working Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas. It was a popular tune there because "Long John" was about an escaped prisoner on the run from authorities.
Williams changed the song, but he kept the prison theme, with lines like, "I believe there's a man done gone to the country farm, with a long chain on."