Paramount Importance

Andrew Hultkrans on Exploring Paramount Records at the New York Public Library

Jack White, Daphne Brooks, and Dean Blackwood. (All photos: Jori Klein/New York Public Library)

IT’S AN OLD AMERICAN STORY, perhaps the story, at least in terms of our popular music heritage: Black-owned record label (Black Swan) is bought by white-owned record label (Paramount), which records and markets black music to black people (“race records”); such music (blues, ragtime, gospel, early jazz) eventually falls out of favor with black people and is taken up decades later by white people (1960s folk revival), with whom it eventually falls out of favor, and finally is taken up again (last Tuesday) nearly a century after the black label’s founding (in Harlem) at the New York Public Library by a man named White, Jack White, in an event moderated by a black woman (Daphne Brooks), attended by a largely white audience.

Also featuring brothers Dean and Scott Blackwood (cofounder of Revenant Records and award-winning fiction writer, respectively) and the éminence grise of the “old, weird America,” Greil Marcus, the event was keyed to the recent release of a massive artisanal box set of eight hundred remastered tracks from Paramount’s treasured “race record” catalog, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917–1932, coproduced by Revenant and White’s Third Man Records. I don’t rate White as a blues musician, but his love and reverence for the music are palpable, and if the preponderance of young people in the SRO audience last week was down to his fame, I’m not complaining. Each generation calls forth archivist-evangelists of early American music (Dean’s partner in Revenant, John Fahey, was one of these), and White has assumed this mantle admirably with the Paramount project, which will see a second volume released in 2014.

The first thing to understand is that Paramount (no relation to the film studio) was not a record company like Columbia or Okeh; rather, it was the Amazon.com of its day, if Amazon had started its business with the Kindle. Owned and run by the Wisconsin Chair Company of Port Washington, Wisconsin, which manufactured a line of wooden phonograph cabinets and figured it would be good for business to provide content for these units, Paramount was founded in 1917 in nearby Grafton, Wisconsin. Its first five years were rocky, as the unremarkable white pop and novelty songs selected for recording kept the label in the red. In 1922, however, as the short-lived but historic Black Swan label was failing, Paramount recognized the burgeoning market for African-American music and purchased the company.

Enter J. Mayo Williams: black graduate of Brown University; WWI veteran; early athlete in a fledgling concern called the National Football League; friend of Paul Robeson; and, during Prohibition, successful Chicago bootlegger. Williams’s connections in Chicago’s nightclubs kept him attuned to emerging African-American musicians in the city, and for five years he scouted, signed, and recorded hundreds of these artists for Paramount, among them the leading lights of the era: Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Papa Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Jelly Roll Morton, and many others, earning the nickname “Ink” for his ability to get performers to sign on the dotted line. Some of the label’s most celebrated artists, particularly Delta bluesmen and songsters like Charley Patton, Skip James, and the Mississippi Sheiks, were signed and recorded by Paramount after Williams’s departure in 1927, many originally discovered and recommended by legendary talent scout H. C. Speir, a white record store owner from Jackson, Mississippi.

Despite the enduring earthiness of the music, Paramount’s 78s were nearly as ephemeral as Kindle Singles due to substandard shellac and sloppy recording techniques. Latter-day collectors have for decades rued the scarcity and low fidelity of Paramount 78s; it seems cosmically wrong for one of leading repositories of early American music to have been so poorly made and archived. Even after the best audio reconstruction and remastering technology available is applied to these tracks, some still sound like coarse sandpaper rubbed over a condenser mic, the music a distant murmur in a storm of static. I haven’t heard all the tracks from the box set, but the ones that were played during the panel discussion confirmed that Dean, White, and their team did their best to restore the sound to acceptable clarity for contemporary ears.

An exhibition from the Paramount Records archive at the New York Public Library.

The panel came in two waves: Dean and White, moderated by Brooks, went first, tracing the above history with commentary about Paramount and the box-set project. A slide show of the wonderful illustrated ads (artists unknown) for the records that appeared in black newspapers like the Chicago Defender, and from which R. Crumb lifted so much of his aesthetic, cycled on twin screens surrounding the stage. Titles like “The Cat’s Got the Measles,” “The Faking Blues,” and “Gang of Brown Skin Women” gave the illustrators ample inspiration for novel imagery. They played key tracks from the set. White called “Mr. Jelly Lord” by Morton and his band the “dubstep of its day,” instrumental dance music that represented “freedom” (in this case, “free” time and playing). Brooks played Waters’s “Ain’t Gonna Marry,” which White characterized as another type of freedom: a protofeminist statement.

Before they got carried away, Dean interjected that no noble motives should be imputed to Williams and Paramount’s execs, who were solely motivated by sales (Williams reportedly said, “You gotta screw the artist before they screw you”), and that one of the main differences between Paramount and “real” record companies was that they didn’t do demo recordings and would release material by almost anybody (if you were recommended by a scout or a previously recorded musician, Paramount would take a chance on you). White played “Shaggy Dog Blues” by one of my favorites, a joyous, raggy eccentric named Buddy Boy Hawkins, noting that Paramount’s poor recordings resulted in a kind of “accidental beauty.” They then played one of strongest (and strangest) songs in the Paramount catalog, Homer Quincy Smith’s dirgey pump-organ apocalypse, “I Want Jesus to Talk with Me,” a harrowing track that rarely fails to raise the hairs on my neck (and God knows what else from the spirit world). White admitted that if he walked into the parlor and heard his grandmother listening to this track, he’d be duly disturbed.

Scott and Marcus joined the panel for the “throwdown,” where each panelist played and discussed their favorite Paramount track. Marcus, after conceding that the best track (Homer Quincy Smith) had already been played, introduced Long “Cleve” Reed & Little Harvey Hull’s “Original Stack O’Lee Blues,” one of the earliest recorded instances of the Stagger Lee legend. Based on the real-life murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in 1895 Saint Louis, essentially a barroom dispute between two black political operatives with underworld connections, the story eventually took on the larger-than-life characteristics of a black-hat/white-hat western in its various musical versions. Not technically a Paramount track but often anthologized with them, the song appeared on Williams’s Black Patti label, which he founded and ran for one year after his split with Paramount. Marcus called it “as pretty a record as you’ll ever hear.”

Dean chose a “half jazz, half washboard band” track by Jimmy O’Bryant (“a poor man’s Johnny Dodds”) and his band that encapsulated the unhinged glee of early “hot” jazz. Finally, White played Sweet Papa Stovepipe’s “Mama’s Angel Child,” an odd, lilting song that harmonically teeters back and forth in loose waltz time like a rusty seesaw. The song was a revelation to him—he wished he’d written it and hoped that we would have a similar eureka moment when first hearing a song—and he said that it inspired him to embark on the Paramount project. That such an obscure, idiosyncratic song could lead to this heroic archival effort is a testament to the power of the music. Here’s hoping it survives for another century.