Money, you might have noticed, is on the mind of many musicians. As music consumption continues to shift toward digital methods of distribution, from illegal downloads that pay the artist nothing to authorized streams that pay very little, some makers are wondering just how they’ll continue to make. If the consumer isn’t willing to foot the bill by paying, how can the product exist?
Though the circumstances have changed in most every respect during the 80 years since the Paramount Records empire crumbled, this core question hasn’t: How do you keep putting music out when you’re no longer pulling money in? The success of Paramount Records, a loss-leader meant to move the music-playing furniture made by the Wisconsin Chair Company as World War I came to a close, was a surprise for the business’ leaders. The shoddily recorded and haphazardly manufactured shellac discs became a rather big boon as the ’20s roared. Hired in 1923, J. Mayo Williams, an ambitious talent scout who had headed north from Arkansas, led the pivotal Paramount charge. He assembled and managed a roster of uncontested originals, from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Ma Rainey to Blind Blake and Jelly Roll Morton. But in 1927, Williams left the label following a series of injuries and insults from the company’s white owners and officers. That’s where the first volume of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records—a massive two-set collaboration between Jack White’s Third Man, John Fahey’s revived Revenant and a fleet of researchers, writers, graphic designers, fabricators, builders, archivists, printers and collectors—closes.
Williams’ departure, though, isn’t the end of Paramount’s rise, even if it might denote the start of the fall. The second volume of The Rise & Fall is instead a catalogue brimming with genius, no matter that the label’s scouts in fields and offices alike didn’t carry the same historical clout as Williams. Charley Patton and Son House, Lottie Kimbrough and Dock Boggs, Geeshie Wiley and Skip James, Thomas Dorsey and Emry Arthur: Those are only some of the names that arrive for this set, which stretches from 1928 until the label’s unceremonious end in the wake of the Great Depression in 1932. That’s when the money ran out for music.
The talent had not stopped shipping into Grafton’s record-pressing plant during that time of widespread financial woe. In fact, the 800 remastered tracks offered in Volume Two document the roots of gospel and swing and the intensification of blues and jazz through the efforts of some of American music’s formative musical minds. You can hear the earliest echoes of bluegrass, which would be born a dozen years after Paramount closed, and antediluvian traces of rock’n’roll, hot on its heels with added electricity.
The funds, however, just weren’t what they used to be. “Despite many of the great talents he helps bring to Grafton, you can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them,” writes Scott Blackwood of the pale, bespectacled and pivotal Paramount recruiter Art Laibly. “Likely, out on the road or riding the rails across the South, Art Laibly’s anxieties about the future would sometimes get the best of him. The Crash. The poor getting poorer. A part of him knowing the days of the Race Records business were numbered.” At least they kept it going long enough to firm up the foundation for their rather young country’s recording pedigree.
You can examine that foundation for yourself on Volume Two. You can ponder the existential strangeness of Patton’s still-singular approach to the blues and his divisive belief in both religion and the bottle. (His “Prayer of Death” tunes as Elder J.J. Hadley are essential.) You can sway to the woozy, wobbly string-band fare of the Mississippi Sheiks. You can nod and shake to the delirious a cappella spirituals of the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham, particularly the delirious and pulsing “Clanka-A-Lanka (Sleep on Mother)”. Skip James’ inescapable “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” is here, as are two versions of Dock Boggs’ “Will Sweethearts Know Each Other” and Geeshie Wiley’s continually magnetic and tragic “Last Kind Words Blues”. Had the unlikely and uncanny venture of Paramount never thrived, and had these songs never been captured, it’s easy to imagine the next several decades of music taking very different turns.
Not everything here changed the world, of course, and some of Paramount’s hidden gems arrive through its most obscure oddities. Brother Fullbosom’s “A Sermon on a Silver Dollar” is a racially and religiously irreverent faux sermon on the power of that most almighty ducat. “Wicked Treatin’ Blues”, a duet for despondent harmonica and vocals that seem delivered from a deathbed, hypnotizes with sadness. George Hamilton’s “Chimes Blues” offers a delightful piano jaunt. Ollie Hess’ parlor-ready “Mammy’s Lullaby” combines arching, urbane vocals and simply picked guitar—country, meet cosmopolitan. Two of the best and most truly haunting songs in the entire Paramount oeuvre belong to Rube Lacy, a little-known blues moaner who only recorded these two cuts as far as anyone can tell. In its waning days, without Williams in command, Paramount was grasping for anything to sell. Many of these didn’t do that, but thanks to Paramount for thinking they might—they are wonderful, ponderous relics. The worst that can be said about any of these songs is that they’re simply curious; the best is that they’re landmarks.
The first volume of The Rise & Fall came housed in an impressive chestnut box, lined with green felt and accessorized with metallic emblems. Its six LPs lived in a wooden record book, and the marbled brown vinyl looked as though it had been cut from the cross-section of some grand old oak. An accompanying USB drive—a “Jobber-Luxe”, Third Man likes to call it—contained the central trove of songs and graphics in a tarnished brass device that seemed pulled from a steampunk’s wildest pipe dream. Both the design and the text were nominated for Grammys in early December, and deservedly so.
You can expect much the same for Volume Two, which steps into the machine age through an aluminum replication of RCA Victor’s beautiful Special Model K portable record player. When the outside latches are unlocked, sets of rivets on either half unscrew to reveal the contents—on one side, a packet of promotional Paramount reproductions and six alabaster white records that sparkle with holograms when lit; on the other, two dense books that detail what’s known about all the musicians involved on these tracks and Blackwood’s romantic history of the second Paramount era. A second USB drive sits lodged in this volume’s navy blue felt. It’s the Paramount eagle, wings up and cast in bright aluminum. The Streamline Moderne approach intends to pull the music from a past of rural antiquity and toward urban modernity. “The machine was the source of America’s might and standing in the world,” Blackwood told Wired in October, “our capacity as an industrial power that connected the vast plains of our country.”
Still, it’s hard to see these sets as more than museum pieces, or, at best, fetishist collector items that lock vital research, history, and context away in a private vault with actual latches. Taken together, volumes one and two of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records are mighty resources for understanding how the near-century of music that has followed first moved. But it’s a shame that such indispensable history remains so relatively unobtainable. Issued in editions of 5,000, these bulky boxes cost $400 each; tellingly, the first volume is still available through Third Man, more than a year after its release.
The price, believe it or not, is worth it. Given the work that went into each package, it’s hard to imagine that White is building his own private railroad with the profits. The treasures in the sets are staggering and sprawling, capable of inducing laughter, heartache, belief, and disbelief. There is bedrock and bedlam alike. But as Blackwood himself writes of a different but not entirely separate era, “You can’t sell the records if no one has money to buy them.” It’s hard to believe that most people have an extra mortgage payment sitting around for this history lesson, however great it may be.
And that’s a shame, because this music still moves. Not only do many of these songs maintain a vibrancy and a spirit that function even now, but they’re part of a still-incomplete story. Paramount was infamously terrible at record-keeping and accounting, so researchers like archivist Alex van der Tuuk are still finding facts and chasing myths to build a more complete label history. “Sun to Sun”, a steady-swerving Blind Blake tune recorded in November 1931, hadn’t been heard by modern ears until a copy was found in a steamer trunk in Raleigh, North Carolina, by the collector Marshall Wyatt in 2007. And Willie Brown, who contributes some of the best blues guitar to either set, remains something of a ghost, despite his relationships with the more famous House and Patton. “No conclusive evidence has been found to prove that this is indeed the real Willie Brown,” van der Tuuk writes of Brown’s believed burial site.
Such mysteries sit close to the core of Pitchfork contributor Amanda Petrusich’s 2014 book, Do Not Sell at Any Price. “There is even a vague fear that rare-record collecting could one day become analogous to fine-art collecting,” Petrusich writes early in her book, “the obligation of wealthy aristocrats whose consumption of art is more a statement of status than a function of love or even understanding.” It’s unfortunate, then, that in an age of infinite digital replication, where media need not be scarce, these archival releases have intentionally realized those fears by turning this music into artifacts for only those who can afford it. The new Jobber-Luxe contains an application that plays all of these tracks in specific orders or at random. If these boxes ever sell out, let’s hope Third Man considers its money made and puts that player online, so that more listeners can know exactly where they came from.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1usQiSD