I take every opportunity I can in this column to praise the work of the legendary Indianapolis blues duo Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell. So I couldn't miss a chance to commemorate the 110th anniversary of Leroy Carr's birthday this year on March 27.
A strong case could be made that the catalog of recordings created by Carr and Blackwell represent the most influential and important artistic legacy in the history of Indianapolis music. The duo were a musical powerhouse. The combination of Blackwell's stinging single-string guitar leads and Carr's laid-back vocalizations created an unprecedented new blues sound imbued with urban cool. Carr and Blackwell are the key link between rural Southern Delta blues and the later electrified incarnation of the genre that would develop in Chicago. Before Muddy Waters left the Mississippi plantations for Chicago, he honed his craft playing along to the records of Carr and Blackwell.
Beyond the duo's musical innovations, one thing that keeps me coming back to their recordings is the poetic and often fatalistic lyrics of Leroy Carr. In the 130 plus songs Carr recorded during his career his fascinating lyrics documented the darker side of human existence. He consistently wrote and sang about subjects like guns, prison, murder, depression, poverty, loss, suicide, hustling, gambling, addiction, domestic violence and even during the height of the prohibition his favorite theme: booze.
I think Carr's difficult lyrics have been a factor in the continued marginalization of his work here in his conservative hometown of Indianapolis. But Carr wasn't writing for shock factor, his lyrics were often confessional and mirrored the troubling conditions of his own life. Carr's words capture the devastating psychological trauma of both being a Black man under Jim Crow law and the general struggle for survival in America during the Great Depression. In this week's column I want to remember some of the historical facts of Carr's life through the sharply written poetry of his songs.
Alcoholism was a defining factor in Carr's life. As I noted above Carr sang of alcohol frequently, even during Prohibition. In his reflective 1930 recording "Hard Times Done Drove Me To Drink" Carr suggests he turned to alcohol as a way of coping with depression. "Sometimes I get to thinking that I just keep on drinking, trying to drink my blues away," Carr sings. "My house fell down and I ain't got no place to stay. I just keep on drinking trying to drive my blues away… my mind keeps rolling. I got 3,000 things on my mind. But I just keep on drinking to pass away the time."
The A-side of Vocalion Records' 1930 release of "Hard Times Done Drove Me To Drink" is "Sloppy Drunk Blues," a tune that finds Carr contemplating the havoc hard-drinking caused in his life. "I'd rather be sloppy drunk doing time in the can than be out in the streets running from the man. Bring me another two-bit pint, because I got my habit on and I'm going to wreck this joint. My gal is trying to quit me for somebody else and now I'm sloppy drunk sleeping all by myself."
Carr's drinking habits brought the singer into conflict with the law. It's known that Carr served time as a young man for his involvement with an Indianapolis bootleg liquor operation. Carr would draw on his time in jail as a theme throughout his artistic career. One of the most poignant examples being his 1928 recording "Prison Bound Blues". Carr's words depict a world where crime is sometimes the only option for survival, and where the battle against poverty numbs you to the threat of death. "I'm on my way to the big house and I don't even care. I might get a lifetime, or I might get the electric chair," Carr sings. "I've had trouble so long, that trouble don't worry me. They got me accused of robbery, but I ain't done nothing wrong. I can't make no money and a job is hard to find. I've been out of work so long that I ain't got a lousy dime."
Complications from alcohol abuse would end Carr's life early at the age 30 as he succumbed to nephritis on April 29, 1935. Carr's lyrics turned even darker as he confronted his own mortality in song during the final days of his life. In December of 1934 just a few months before his death Carr recorded "Suicide Blues" perhaps his bleakest creation. "If somebody finds me when I'm dead and gone, say I did self‑murder and I died with my boots on," Carr sings in a noticeably weak voice. "I took me a Smith and Wesson and blew out my brains. I didn't take no poison, I couldn't stand the strain. I ain't no coward and I'll tell you why. I was just tired of living but wasn't afraid to die... In my farewell letter someone's sure to find 'goodbye old cruel world, I'm glad I left you behind."
Carr's final recording session on February 25 of 1935 yielded a chilling premonition of his imminent death titled "Six Cold Feet in the Ground." Recorded alone at the piano without the standard accompaniment from his longtime partner Scrapper, Carr delivered an austere and understated goodbye. "Just remember me baby when I'm in six feet of cold, cold ground. Always remember me baby and say a good man's gone down… Don't cry after I'm gone. Just lay my body in six cold feet of ground."
While music fans around the world continue to celebrate the remarkable artistic legacy of Leroy Carr, his last recorded wish remains largely unfulfilled in his hometown. "Just remember me…"