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Scrapper Blackwell: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
Francis Hillman “Scrapper” Blackwell (February 21, 1903 – October 7, 1962) was an American blues guitarist and singer, best known as half of the guitar-piano duo he formed with Leroy Carr in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was an acoustic single-note picker in the Chicago blues and Piedmont blues styles. Some critics have noted that he veered towards jazz.
Blackwell was born in Syracuse, South Carolina, one of sixteen children of Payton and Elizabeth Blackwell. He was part Cherokee. He grew up in and spent most of his life in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he first relocated at the age of three. He was given the nickname “Scrapper” by his grandmother, because of his fiery nature. His father played the fiddle, but Blackwell was a self-taught guitarist, building his first guitar out of a cigar box, wood and wire. He also learned to play the piano, occasionally performing professionally. By his teens, Blackwell was a part-time musician, traveling as far as Chicago. He was known for being withdrawn and hard to work with, but he established a rapport with the pianist Leroy Carr, whom he met in Indianapolis in the mid-1920s, and they had a productive working relationship. Carr convinced Blackwell to record with him for Vocalion Records in 1928; the result was “How Long, How Long Blues“, the biggest blues hit of that year.
Blackwell also made solo recordings for Vocalion, including “Kokomo Blues”, which was transformed into “Old Kokomo Blues” by Kokomo Arnold and later reworked as “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson. Blackwell and Carr toured throughout the American Midwest and South between 1928 and 1935 as stars of the blues circuit, recording over 100 sides. “Prison Bound Blues” (1928), “Mean Mistreater Mama” (1934), and “Blues Before Sunrise” (1934) were popular tracks.
Blackwell made several solo excursions. A 1931 visit to Richmond, Indiana, to record at Gennett studios is noteworthy. Blackwell was dissatisfied with the lack of credit given his contributions with Carr; the situation was remedied by Vocalion’s Mayo Williams after his 1931 breakaway: in all future recordings, Blackwell and Carr received equal songwriting credits and equal status in recording contracts. Blackwell’s last recording session with Carr was in February 1935, for Bluebird Records. The session ended bitterly, as 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”). After the death of Carr, Blackwell did a few recordings with piano player Dot Rice, without much success; the song “No Good Woman Blues” shows Blackwell as the singer. A short time later Blackwell retired from the music industry.
Blackwell returned to music in the late 1950s. He was recorded by Colin C. Pomroy in June 1958 (those recordings were released in 1967 on the Collector label). Soon afterwards he was recorded by Duncan P. Schiedt for Doug Dobell‘s 77 Records.
Blackwell was then recorded in 1961, in Indianapolis, by the young Art Rosenbaum for the Prestige/Bluesville Records label. The story was recounted by Rosenbaum as starting three years before the recordings were made. When he was growing up in Indianapolis, Rosenbaum knew an African-American woman who said that he “had to meet a man that she knew, who played guitar, played blues and christian songs, they’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.” Rosenbaum subsequently met Blackwell: “I met the gentleman across the street from the Methodist hospital in Indianapolis”. Blackwell’s friend said, “well he hasn’t got a guitar”, so Rosenbaum said, “well I got a guitar.” Blackwell than said that he needed some “bird food“. Rosenbaum did not understand what he was referring to, so Blackwell explained, “you gotta get some bird food for the bird, before the bird sings… beer!” Rosenbaum said, “I’m too young!” Blackwell continued, “we’ll buy the beer, you just give us some money.” Rosenbaum recalled, “So we did, and he started playing these beautiful blues. I didn’t realize he was Scrapper Blackwell til I mentioned his name to a blues collecting friend”, when the friend exclaimed, “you met Scrapper Blackwell!?”
Blackwell was ready to resume his blues career, when he was shot and killed in a mugging in an Indianapolis alley, in October 1962. He was 59 years old. The police arrested his neighbor at the time for the murder, but the crime remains unsolved. Blackwell is buried in New Crown Cemetery, in Indianapolis.
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” is a blues standard written by Jimmie Cox in 1923. It is written in a Vaudeville-blues style. The lyrics sung in the popular 1929 recording by Bessie Smith are told from the point of view of somebody who was once wealthy during the Prohibition era, reflect on the fleeting nature of material wealth and the friendships that come and go with it. Smith was the preeminent female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. Since her 1929 recording, the song has been interpreted by numerous musicians in a variety of styles.
Lyrics and composition
When composed in 1923, the “Roaring Twenties” were coming into full swing. Cox’s publisher Clarence Williams Music Publishing Co. filed a copyright registration, December 17, 1923 listing the title as “Nobody knows you when you are down and out” (no contraction). After the post-World War I recession, a new era of prosperity was experienced in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, in the face of all the optimism, the known lyrics form a cautionary tale about the fickle nature of fortune and its attendant relationships:
Once I lived the life of a millionaire, spendin’ my money I didn’t have a care
I carried my friends out for a good time, buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
When I begin to fall so low, I didn’t have a friend and no place to go
So if I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I’m gonna hold on to it ’til them eagles grin
Nobody knows you, when you down and out
In my pocket not one penny, and my friends I haven’t any
Although “Nobody Knows You When You Are Down and Out” was copyrighted in 1923, the first known publication did not appear until a recording of 1927. Piedmont blues musician Bobby Leecan, who recorded with various ensembles, such as the South Street Trio, Dixie Jazzers Washboard Band, and Fats Waller‘s Six Hot Babies, recorded “Nobody Needs You When You’re Down and Out” under the name “Blind Bobby Baker and his guitar”, with his vocal and fingerpicking-style guitar. His version, recorded in New York around June 1927, is credited on the record label to Bobby Leecan and has completely different lyrics from the popular 1929 version, with emphasis on being poor, including a verse about being cheated playing “The Numbers“.
The second known recording of the song was on January 11, 1929 by an obscure vocal quartet, the Aunt Jemima Quality Four, first to use the now familiar title, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. The lyrics in this recording can be heard to track roughly with the well known lyrics and are partially spoken, as if being read.
Four days later, influential boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Smith recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” in Chicago, crediting Cox as the author. In it, lyrics (again quite different from either Bobby Leecan’s or Bessie Smith’s) are spoken rather than sung, by Pinetop Smith and Alberta Reynolds, to Pinetop’s piano accompaniment. The song is one of 11 known recordings by Smith, who died two months after he recorded it.
Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spending my money and I did not care
Carryin’ my friends out for the good time
Buyin’ bootleg liquor, champagne and wine
Lord, but I got busted and I fell so low
Didn’t have no money and nowhere to go
This is the truth, Lord, without a doubt
Nobody wants you when you’re down
I mean, nobody wants you when you’re down
Lord, the other day I asked the man for my rent
He told me, boy, the money he had spent
But I tried my best to try one or two
That’s everything that I could do
Lord, nobody let me have one lousy dime
I’m out there worryin’ now all the time
But I’m gonna tell you this is true, Lord, without a doubt
Nobody wants you when you’re down
Nobody wants you when you’re down
Lord, if I could get my hands on a dollar again
I would hold it ’til that eagle grins
I would try him just for one little house
Nobody knows me when I’m down and out
Lord, I’ll try for another day
To make my troubles in my own way
But I’m gon’ tell you the truth, Lord, without a doubt
Nobody knows me when you’re down
I mean nobody knows me when you’re down
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