"There is a strong line in all our music that can be traced back directly to Scrapper Blackwell. He was a truly great musician who did deserve more than was ever given him." - Bob Dylan
Growing up in Central Indiana I heard a lot of ghost stories. You might know them too - tales about Hannah House on Madison Avenue, the Haunted Bridge in Avon and Gravity Hill in Mooresville.
But there's a lesser known tale that's always stuck with me. A story about the murder of an old bluesman whose killer was never found. According to this legend you can hear the ghost of the old bluesman howling mournfully late at night in the Old Northside neighborhood where he was gunned down. I never took the tale too seriously - well, until I heard the full story of Scrapper Blackwell.
In the late 1920s, Scrapper Blackwell was part of an influential Indianapolis blues duo with singer and pianist Leroy Carr. Their debut recording, 1928's "How Long, How Long Blues," hit the market with a bang. Leroy Carr's smooth, laid-back croon was a million miles removed from the raw throat hollering of his rural southern counterparts. Blackwell's jazzy, single string solos broke the mold for blues guitar while anticipating the work of future performers like Charlie Christian.
They recorded over 100 more sides through the next few years; their popularity with the public was matched only by the influence they exerted on their musical peers. It's been said that the vocals of Leroy Carr were a key influence on the early work of Ray Charles and Nat King Cole.
But this story isn't about Leroy Carr. It's about the oft-neglected Scrapper Blackwell, who was frequently shortchanged when it came time to dish out credits. The guitarist's name was simply left off the label on many Carr and Blackwell releases.
This lack of recognition was a source of great consternation for Blackwell, causing the guitarist to seek out solo recording opportunities. It eventually contributed to the duo's breakup in 1935, shortly before Leroy Carr's death that same year.
Blackwell cut a dozen or so solo records in the '20s and '30s. His best-known composition from this period, "Kokomo Blues" (ostensibly written about the Indiana city), would later be modified by Robert Johnson as "Sweet Home Chicago," a standard of the blues repertoire.
Blackwell's solo career would not last long. The guitarist dropped out of the music business following the death of Carr, returning to the studio one last time in 1935 to record the touching tribute "My Old Pal Blues (Dedicated To The Memory Of Leroy Carr)."
At this point Blackwell simply disappeared, retreating into a life of anonymity in Indianapolis. Scrapper would not be heard from again until the late '50s, when a resurgence of interest in folk music led collectors and scholars to track down legendary musicians like Blackwell. It was during this period that Blackwell made his return to recording, culminating with the release of his greatest LP, the classic Mr. Scrapper's Blues.
The LP finds Blackwell in excellent form, from the rolling and tumbling "Little Boy Blue," to the soft piano-led "Little Girl Blues." Or instrumental tracks like "A Blues" and "E Blues," where Blackwell proves his guitar picking chops are still intact.
But for me, the highlight of the album is Blackwell's world-weary version of the Prohibition Era standard "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Blackwell's reading sounds deeply personal, the lyrics closely mirroring the sharp rise and fall of his own career and his unique guitar arrangement of this standard would later be imitated by Eric Clapton almost note-for-note on Clapton's 1992 Unplugged LP.
"Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money, I didn't care...
But then I got busted and fell so low
I didn't have no money or nowhere to go"
Mr. Scrapper's Blues was well-received at the time of its release and it looked like Blackwell was on the fast track to restoring his career. But his story would not have a happy end. Within a year after the LP's release, Blackwell was shot and killed outside of his Downtown Indianapolis home. Police arrested Blackwell's neighbor at the time of the murder, but the case remains unsolved.
This October marks the 51st anniversary of Blackwell's death. Sometimes on cold autumn nights, I swear I can hear his mournful howl buried within the refrain of a gusty fall wind, crying out for the recognition his rich legacy has never received in the city he called home.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features classic recordings by Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr. You can subscribe to the Cultural Manifesto podcast on Itunes here.
1. Scrapper Blackwell - Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
2. Scrapper Blackwell - Kokomo Blues
3. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Blues Before Sunrise
4. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Naptown Blues
5. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Shining Pistol
6. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Gettin' All Wet
7. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - I Believe I'll Make A Change
8. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - When The Sun Goes Down
9. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Carried Water For The Elephant
10. Leroy Carr - Ain't It A Shame
11. Scrapper Blackwell & Dot Rice - My Old Pal (Dedicated To The Memory of Leroy Carr)
12. Scrapper Blackwell - Hard Time Blues
13. Scrapper Blackwell - My Dream Blues
14. Scrapper Blackwell - Where The Monon Crosses The Yellow Dog
15. Scrapper Blackwell - Shady Lane
16. Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - How Long, How Long Blues