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Our critics' picks in new releases

Scrapper Blackwell 

Our critics' picks in new releases

Blues guitarist Francis "Scrapper" Blackwell (1903-1962), nicknamed for his tendency to tussle with his brothers as a baby, never became a household word like Robert Johnson, or a '60s revival figure like the Reverend Gary Davis. But he had a major influence on bluesmen from T-Bone Walker to Johnson himself.

Blackwell was born in Syracuse, S.C., (the album's liner notes inexplicably situate the town in North Carolina) of mixed Cherokee heritage. His family moved to Indianapolis when he was 3, following countless other rural blacks who sought urban factory work up north. He became a successful bootlegger there, as well as a member of the Indiana Avenue music scene, teaming up with pianist Leroy Carr for a popular 1928 recording of "How Long, How Long Blues."

Blackwell and Carr were a successful duo until Carr's death in 1935 of complications from alcoholism. Deeply depressed by his friend's passing, Blackwell became a manual laborer and quit recording for 25 years. He didn't even own a guitar in 1959, when he was "rediscovered" and returned to the studio.

Bluesville's reissue of Mr. Scrapper's Blues (1961) captures Blackwell at what could have been a pivotal moment in his career: Had he not died a year later--shot in an alley like a good bluesman ought to be (in order to insure "legendary" status)--his return to the music scene would have undoubtedly led to an appearance at Newport, lionization by a new generation, and the chance to get chummy with Bonnie Raitt.

Instead, we're left to marvel at the depth of his songwriting abilities and the breadth of his performing style. Blackwell has what a lot of other bluesmen don't: a talent at songcraft that goes beyond boilerplate 12-bar numbers, fluency in a variety of lesser-used keys, and a more sophisticated, intellectual approach to performance than you'd find at your typical rent party. His vocals, especially on classic numbers like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," have the nuanced tenderness of Billie Holiday. And Carr's powerful songwriting is evident on tunes like "Blues Before Sunrise."

Blurring the lines between rural and urban blues, and tossing in some jazz for good measure, Blackwell gets an incredible amount of mileage out of what might be considered the most predictable of musical genres. If you've been afflicted with blues fatigue, Mr. Scrapper's Blues is just what the doctor ordered.

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