It’s unlikely I will ever drop the $400 or so – not to mention the 40 or so quid it would cost to get it released from customs – that I would need to lay out to buy it, but even experienced digitally, the second Paramount Box set released by Jack White’s Third Man records is just extraordinary. I wrote about it a while ago for my UAE guys and if nothing else it encouraged me to dig around in my John Fahey stuff to find the correct Fahey quote about Skip James (see below). Fahey went on to write that at the time they met, Skip James had cancer of the genitals and had lately had pretty much all of these genitals removed. Which might, I guess, account for some of his unsunny disposition, though nothing Fahey writes suggests that Skip was ever a pleasant man, even when he had the full complement of reproductive organs. Anyway.
The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records Vol 2 1928-1932
As much as we have come to know him as rock aesthete, refining his colour palette and rewiring the blues idiom for his own modern ends, Jack White is also a scholar and a historian of the blues. In 2000, then the pseudonymous White Stripes frontman, White turned journalist, reviewing for NME a box set on Revenant Records called Screaming And Hollering The Blues – The Worlds Of Charley Patton.
In so doing, White showed his deep understanding of Patton (Writer of “Spoonful Blues” among other classics), but also his affinity with the personae and mythology of the Delta Blues. He also joined an illustrious heritage of (often California-based) scholars, musicians, and self-mythologizers like John Fahey (the musician on whose label the Patton box was released), Dr Demento and Bob Dylan, all transfixed by the societies recorded within the degraded audio of old 78rpm records.
Who were these musicians? How did they live? With scant information on the players, the companies who recorded them long defunct, the music made from the advent of the phonograph record in 1917 until the great depression curtailed demand in about 1930 is a compelling puzzle. A big word in one of the accompanying books to this set is “ghosts”, and no wonder. Seeking for answers is like the dive down to a shipwreck, with record collectors the unlikely heroes of the piece.
At the present time – thanks to the efforts of people like White, labels like Revenant and Dust-to-Digital and larger-than-life characters like record collector Joe Bussard – this exploration is also enjoying its own literary moment, with essayists like John Jeremiah Sullivan and Amanda Petrusich making their own art out of engagement with the quest. Sullivan has lately chronicled his obsession with Geeshie Wiley’s song “Last Kind Words Blues” in a wonderful, epic piece in the New York Times magazine. Petrusich learned to scuba dive so that she could explore more thoroughly the report that disgruntled employees of Paramount records threw masters and records from the factory’s window into the adjacent Milwaukee river when the company finally ceased trading.
The story of Paramount records would be remarkable, even if Jack White had not now made it monumental. This – the second such box set he has released in the last two years – is a work of art in itself. The chrome suitcase in which it arrives contains six alabaster white vinyl albums with hologram detail, two meticulously-detailed books, and the motherlode, a chrome USB stick containing 800 remastered songs from the label’s last four years of operation. There is most usefully an App – and here, you may browse for hours at a time, by theme, by album, or entirely at random. It’s a case of baptism by immersion.
The label’s origins were less carefully planned. After the end of World War One, the Wisconsin Chair Company of Grafton, Wisconsin began manufacturing radiograms and gramophone cabinets – for which in the flower of post-war prosperity, there was an increased demand. Realising that they might also supply the records to be played on the gramophones, the company started Paramount, achieving a commercial eureka moment with a decision to record “race” records – the blues and jazz popular in the African-American community.
Paramount was not a principled company, and for years used the talents of Mayo “Ink” Williams, an Ivy League scholar whose association with African-American performers brought talent to the label, without offering him a formal position. Likewise, its records were pressed on worst quality shellac – and yet from no high-minded principles whatever, it obliquely created an unequalled archive of blues music. From its Midwest base, the label was ideally placed to record established stars as they came through to visit Chicago, and also to market delta blues recordings – Chicago being a popular destination for African-Americans who had journeyed north from the southern states in hope of advancement.
The latest box contains impressive selections from acknowledged giants like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton (White’s personal favourite), and Skip James, but modernity allows us to experience the set’s range. Using the app and its “radio” function allows us a haphazard experience of the collection’s breadth: a juxtaposition of devotional gospel, string bands, and scarifying blues – songs in which the performance of one man or woman can convey fleeting joys or a whole generation’s societal problems.
A modern experience of the blues is all about rediscovery, and obsession. In the early 1960s, musician/scholar John Fahey made repeated journeys south following up leads fruitlessly trying to find Skip James, and uncover his secrets. In 1964, he met a young kid at a gas station who told Fahey that he had lately witnessed an unpleasant scene: an old guy drunk and furiously shouting in a bar, about how he had recorded blues on guitar and piano, and travelled to Wisconsin to do so. Guitar (i)and(i) piano? Wisconsin? Surely, Fahey thought, this must be Skip James.
Patton and Jefferson are thought the giants, but to these ears the 18 sides that James recorded in late January 1931 – among them “Devil Got My Woman” and “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” are simply unequalled for their spinechilling atmosphere and originality, having the beauty of hymns, but with little sense of a benign god. Here you can line them all up in a playlist – or be bowled over by their appearance on some of the LP selections here.
Compiled with an expert’s eye and an ear for unlikely kinships, these selections have the feel of pre-war mixtapes. A particularly fine run occurs on LP2, when Emry Arthur, a hillbilly in mixed company in March 1930 arrives with the eerie dissonance of “Reuben Reuben”. He is followed by Skip James’s second take of “Special Rider Blues” and then the sweet ballad “Mammy’s Lullaby” by Ollie Hess, which seems to come from an altogether more consoling and vaudevillian place. A song as magnificent as Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues”, which ends the fourth LP, equals James in its command of a bereft, godless power.
The set manages to create something of the mystery and discovery that has historically driven blues scholarship. Alongside the greats, it recontextualizes lesser-known talents and encourages further enquiry. Hearing the entropic guitar playing of “Rolling Log Blues” by Lottie Kimbrough determines you to begin your own further investigations. Seven wonderful tracks by eerie banjo pioneer Dock Boggs from WE Myers’ independent label The Lonesome Ace somehow end up here, and the dispassionate fatalism of his material is a fantastic thing to find. You peer a little closer and find Boggs was a pal of the aforementioned Emry Arthur, who worked making furniture at Paramount – which likely accounts for the pair’s presence on the otherwise “race” label. It’s all here if you look.
Huge and beautiful, White’s set lavishes on this music the care it was not offered at the time, a work of scholarship and patience that bolsters rather than diminishes the legend of the collected music, enabling us to hear (and with the advertisements also collected here, see) it more clearly. Petrusich dived the Milwaukee River, but found there were no records down there: a dam had burst in 2000, and washed them all away. John Fahey did find Skip James, but found him to be “an obnoxious, bitter, hateful old creep” whose contempt for everything, especially his new audiences, quickly killed any interest in his rediscovery.
Rumours can prove unfounded, and ghosts scary for unexpected reasons. These Paramount sets demonstrate the power in something altogether more substantial – the music that fired people’s imaginations in the first place.
THE PLAYLIST: ARCHIVAL BOX SETS
VARIOUS ARTISTS ed Harry Smith
The Anthology of American Folk Music
Harry Smith compiled his (then not strictly legal) Anthology of early 20th Century music in 1952. The colour-coded collection of blues and Appalachian music made it a lodestone for the 1960s folk revival. John Fahey’s sleevenotes for the 1997 reissue won a Grammy.
“SCREAMIN’ AND HOLLERIN’ THE BLUES” – The worlds of Charley Patton
Released shortly after Fahey’s death, this exemplary exegesis of Patton as musician and in his time also tacitly salutes another talent. The music. Labels. Disc of interviews. It’s all here.
Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You
DUST TO DIGITAL
An immense figure, Fahey was an enthusiast, who became a scholar, musician and proselyte of the blues. This freewheeling box collects the work he made for Joe Bussard’s Fonotone records, under aliases, in odd formations, and in various states of coherence.
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND THE MAGIC BAND
Though a psychedelic star, Beefheart’s root was the blues. This Revenant box gathers archive material from across the extraordinary band’s life, including documentary rehearsal footage of the band’s legendary art blues classic, (i)Trout Mask Replica(i).