Thursday, June 19, 2014

Give Carr & Blackwell's "How Long Blues" its due

Posted By on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 1:50 PM


Would you believe me if I told you that one of the most influential songs of 20th century popular music was recorded in Indianapolis? Would you be surprised to learn that although the song remains largely forgotten by the public, it's been performed by iconic music superstars like Eric Clapton, The Grateful Dead, Count Basie and Ray Charles?

Exactly 86 years ago this week on June 19, a pair of pioneering Indianapolis bluesmen entered a local recording studio to cut a tune that would permanently change the evolution of American popular music. The musicians were Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, and the song was Carr's "How Long, How Long Blues." 

While the differences may seem subtle to listeners today, Carr and Blackwell's debut recording sounded like nothing else when it hit the market in 1928. In an era dominated by rural country blues and vaudevillian hokum, Carr and Blackwell's creation was modern and hip. "How Long, How Long Blues" oozed with a cool, urban sophistication previously unheard in the blues genre due in equal measures to pianist Carr's restrained, laid-back vocals and guitarist Blackwell's jazzy single-string leads.

Innovative new microphones and recording devices created room for more expressive vocalizations, which meant singers no longer had to shout to project their voices in the manner of Carr's hollering blues contemporaries like Charley Patton and Bessie Smith.

"How Long, How Long Blues" was an instant hit, quickly selling over a million copies. The record's release marked a watershed moment in American music, sparking a widespread transition towards a more urban approach to music-making. 

The influence "How Long, How Long Blues" exerted on a generation of musicians in the late '20s and early '30s could roughly be compared to the impact of Elvis Presley's early Sun sessions in the '50s, or the effect of Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" on pop music of the '80s. Chicago blues master Muddy Waters once said that he learned to play guitar by strumming along with the original 78 RPM recording of "How Long, How Long Blues." The record is also speculated to have influenced the early combos of both Ray Charles and Nat King Cole.

So if "How Long, How Long Blues" holds such an important position in popular music, why does its significance remain largely unknown to the general listening public? I think there's two major reasons for this discrepancy, both of which involve Carr and Blackwell's legacy clashing with the established doctrine of blues history.

Most blues scholars assert the genre was primarily a Southern phenomenon, until the '40s when artists like Muddy Waters emigrated north to find work in the industrial capitals of Chicago and Detroit. The appearance of Indianapolis as a focal point during an early stage of the blues timeline represents an inconvenient aberration for simplified versions of the music's history. 

And Carr and Blackwell's smooth, urban sound was at odds with the taste of many important blues historians who preferred their early blues music raw and primitive. So while Delta blues masters like Skip James and Son House were canonized in blues history, Carr and Blackwell were often relegated to the fringes, despite their obvious importance. 

But those explanations don't account for the lack of appreciation the duo's achievements have received in their hometown. There are no historical markers identifying the location where "How Long, How Long Blues" was recorded. There are no statues, or murals of Carr and Blackwell to be found in Indy either. In fact, there's little evidence to note their existence here at all. 

Indianapolis has allowed the history of its African American music visionaries to lie in obscurity for far too long. For me it seems there's no better place to begin to rectify this neglect than with the legacy of Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell.

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.

Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - How Long, How Long Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - I Believe I'll Make A Change
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Motherless Child
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Carried Water for the Elephant
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Naptown Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Blues Before Sunrise
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Muddy Water
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - When the Sun Goes Down (In the Evening)
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Bee-Da-Da-Bum
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Papa Wants to Knock a Jug
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Papa's on the Housetop
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Tight Time Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Church House Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - You Got Me Grieving
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - It's Too Short
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - My Good For Nothin' Gal
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Hustler's Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - You Left Me Crying
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Shinin' Pistol
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Suicide Blues
Leroy Carr & Scrapper Blackwell - Six Cold Feet in the Ground

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