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Searching for Scrapper Blackwell, the Most Popular Bluesman You've Never Heard

Eric Clapton covered his song, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” almost note for note.

Rory Gallagher listed him as one of his biggest influences. Hell, even Robert Johnson turned his song about “sweet home Kokomo” into an ode about Chicago.

But who remembers Scrapper Blackwell, the Indianapolis single-note picker who was on top of the world from 1928 to 1935?

As a cigar box guitar player, I had heard his names in the DIY circles as one of the blues greats who started on a cigar box guitar. In his final interview, just one year before he was murdered, Blackwell described his first guitar. "Ain’t nobody never told me nothin’ in my life,” he said. “…never showed me anything. And the first guitar I ever had in my life I made it myself... Out of a mandolin neck and a cigar box. That’s the truth, that’s the truth. Put six strings on it and played it.” (His final interview is archived here. It’s worth the read!)

In my search, I first wanted to find out about that cigar box guitar. Was he remembering the instrument correctly? It seems impossible to have a six-string guitar with a mandolin neck, I thought. So I found an old mandolin neck and an antique box and built one to find out. (See the photo above.) I documented the entire build and posted videos here: Re-Creating Scrapper Blackwell's First Cigar Box Guitar.

Between 1928 and 1935, Scrapper Blackwell and his partner, pianist Leroy Carr, were the most popular blues duo in America. Their first hit, “How Long, How Long Blues,” was the top blues song of 1928. In fact, so many copies were pressed, causing the original metal masters to wear out! Vocalion Records called Carr and Blackwell back into the recording studio twice to record “How Long, How Long Blues No. 2” and “How Long, How Long Blues No. 3!”

Unlike the tragic stories of many other bluesmen, Vocalion paid the duo fairly, each netting $4,000, which translates to $55,000 in today’s money. And they continued to get royalty checks every six months.

For the next few years, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell continued their string of hits, including “Kokomo Blues,” “Blues Before Sunrise” and “Mean Mistreater Mama.” Feeling slighted for Carr’s top billing (and often omitting Blackwell’s own name on the label), Scrapper entered the recording studio in 1931 and 1932 to cut some incredible solo records under his own name. As a former bootlegger, he often sang of making and drinking homemade whiskey, such as “Down in Black Bottom.” Listen to his fluid fingerpicking, recorded four years before Robert Johnson ever cut anything to wax.

Blackwell’s solo recordings were hits on their own, guaranteeing his name to always be included with Carr’s on their duo recordings.

Blackwell and Carr continued to record together until 1935, ending with a bitter recording session in February of that year. Both musicians left the studio mid-session and on bad terms, stemming from payment disputes. Two months later, Blackwell received a phone call informing him of Carr's death due to heavy drinking and nephritis.

Blackwell soon recorded a tribute to his musical partner of seven years ("My Old Pal Blues") and then walked away from his recording career, working in an asphalt factory.

Blackwell was rediscovered in the late Fifties, poverty-stricken and living in his cousin’s house. He didn’t even own a guitar. When one was provided for him, he immediately went back to his old chops, not missing a single lick. The folk music boom was on, and Blackwell was just the hero they were looking for. He was brought back into the studio and cut three albums' worth of material. He also started planning festival appearances.

All his plans were cut short October 7, 1962, when Blackwell was gunned down in front of his house in an apparent mugging. The crime remains unsolved to this day.

Blackwell left a wealth of recordings, showcasing his single-string leads that influenced generations of performers (whether they know it or not). Bob Dylan said, "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."

Blackwell’s most telling lyric comes straight from his song, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”:

“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”

Here he is in one of his final sessions.

Shane Speal is the "King of the Cigar Box Guitar" and the creator of the modern cigar box guitar movement. Hear the music, see the instruments and read about his Cigar Box Guitar Museum at Speal's latest album, Holler! is on C. B. Gitty Records.