The history of American music looks a lot like the Mississippi river: It’s meandering and long, fueled by hundreds of different sources, and eventually ruptures into a delta of infinite directions. But travel up the Mississippi far enough and you’ll hit Lake Itasca, the modest glacial lake in Clearwater County, Minnesota that feeds the mighty river. Paramount Records just might be the Lake Itasca of recorded American music.
Founded in Wisconsin in 1917, Paramount recorded some of the most important delta blues musicians in history: Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, King Oliver, and Skip James are among the hundreds of artists that recorded at Paramount during its 16 year run.
When the label collapsed in 1932, most of its thousands of blues recordings were lost -- either melted down for materials, or just thrown into the river by angry workers. (Yes, scuba divers have gone looking for them).
But some recordings survived, in various states of audibility. And last year Dean Blackwood, co-founder of Revenant Records (with John Fahey), teamed up with Jack White and his Third Man Records to release a two-volume box set containing thousands of the long lost Paramount’s recordings, The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records.
In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Blackwood reflects on the origin and rich history of Paramount and its artists, and the box set's second volume, which is due out on Nov 18.
Dean Blackwood on the origins of Paramount Records:
Most of these companies like Paramount got in the record business solely to sell something else -- usually record players. They wanted to sell their furniture line. In this case, Wisconsin Chair Company had done some contract manufacturing for Thomas Edison when his factory burned down in Orange, New Jersey. He was looking for a place where he could scale to his size of operation to make these phonograph cabinets he'd been making. He got Wisconsin Chair Company to do this right off Lake Michigan and they decided, "Oh this isn't that hard. We can make these. Oh, and we should make some records, too."
So from 1917 to 1922 they made records that no one really cared to listen to. They assumed that it didn't matter as long as you were producing some sort of content. It was really about the technology, about demonstrating for your friends the ability to play your records.
On "race records" -- music performed by and marketed to an African American audience:
Blind Lemon Jefferson was really the signal in 1926 that there was a market for a solo vocalist with guitar playing the blues. They had mostly focused on female blues singers up to that point. Maimie Smith who had recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920 for Okeh, that was a huge hit. And then of course you had many other female recording artists. But it was Jefferson in '26 that signaled, "Hey there is something different here." And that really was an exclusively black audience for these solo guitar blues songs. He was the first real superstar in this vein.
On remastering 90-year-old recordings:
We had a huge team. Key in that was Chris King who is both a collector and one of the leading 78 master engineers. A lot of it, there is some science, but it's really an art. It's eking music out of a groove. He's done things like put his turn table at an angle where he thinks the needle will find more music on one wall of the groove than the other.
It's inventing on the fly how to eke out the sound. It's amazing the amount of detail that is encoded in the records. Even in a Paramount record, as bad as it sounds, the limitation's really in the material that was used, but it doesn't mean the music is not in there. And so you have to know when to leave it alone.