Graded on a Curve: The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume 2

Arriving this week through the combined good graces of Third Man and Revenant is the second and final installment in The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records. Comprised of six LPs, a hardcover book, an illustrated Field Guide of artist bios, and a sculpted metal USB drive holding 800 songs and over 90 original ads all housed in a polished aluminum streamlined case modeled on a portable phonograph, it completes a thrillingly exhaustive annotation of arguably the most important record label of the 20th century. The music provides enough insight, mystery, and pure enjoyment to last a lifetime.

By its very nature, The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records Volume 2 is resistant to efficient, decisive conclusions. Loaded with close to 40 hours of audio, it is a history lesson in a suitcase, and when matched with its predecessor from 2013 they offer a vast library of captured sound. Bluntly, the impact of the totality is still being felt nearly 100 years after, so plumbing the fathoms of its essence doesn’t exactly result in a tidy scenario.

The story is long familiar. Started as a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company and killed by the harsh reality of the Great Depression, Paramount may or may not be the 1900s supreme label (and the competition is slim, mainly Chess, Sun, and Stax), but indisputable is the venture’s role in shaping pop, rock, the crossroads of folk, Old-Time and Americana, and most importantly the blues.

Paramount gnawed termitically into the music of its era (poetically ironic for the entrepreneurial side-effort of a furniture business), famously revealing for future generations the undiluted sound of the Mississippi Delta. And by now most of Paramount’s discoveries in this regional subgenre have been recurrently documented elsewhere, notably by Revenant’s Grammy-winning box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton.

But for ears already well-versed in the Delta the worthiness of this collection stands undiminished. And conversely, listeners with only a mild interest in the country blues of Mississippi shouldn’t assume for an instant that The Rise & Fall caters predominantly to aficionados of the style, even as the blues does play an undeniably large part in the Paramount narrative (as it does in American music in general).

Taken in isolation, the sequencing of the LPs included in Volume 2 paint a highly varied portrait, one as digestible, if not as astonishing, as the initial three volumes in The Anthology of American Folk Music; the Delta is certainly in evidence, but much of disc 1 is devoted to a broad range of groups, presenting the Old-Time flavor of Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles’ “Knocking Down Casey Jones,” the Carver Boys’ somewhat Dave Macon-like “Tim Brook” and the rollicking early jazz of the Dixie Four’s “Five O’Clock Stomp.”

There’s the fiddle blues potency of the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Please Baby” and the uncut goodtime mania of the Tub Jug Washboard Band’s gloriously juiced-up and brittle “San” as the a cappella richness of the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham’s “Clanka a Lanka” adds welcome breadth. And LP 2 deepens the vocal group threads via the Biddleville Quintette’s tour de force of virtuosity and emotionalism “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day” and the sleeker groove machine of the Norfolk Jazz Quartette’s “What is the Matter Now.”

Also surfacing are pianists, both in spirited solo performances such as George Hamilton’s “Chimes Blues” and Blind Leroy Garnett’s “Louisiana Glide” to the slick collab of guitarist Blind Blake and 88s maestro Charlie Spand on “Hastings St.” Of course the blues does figure in the situation, illuminated here by the marvelous vocal-guitar duet of Lottie Kimbrough’s “Rolling Log Blues,” Edward Thompson’s tough yet relatively easy to absorb “West Virginia Blues,” the increased severity of the shadowy Willie Brown’s “M & O Blues,” and the celebrated individualism of his Delta counterpart Skip James’ “Special Rider Blues.”

LP 3 supplies a nice dose of jazziness in the Windy Rhythm Kings’ “South African Blues,” its snaky clarinet oozing sophistication missing from the vaudeville tent-shaded storytelling of The Hokum Boys’ “Gamblers Blues” as the deceptively named Tommy Settlers and His Blues Moaners’ truly zonked “Big Bed Bug” is an attempt to blend the swing of jazz and the lowbrow verve of hokum in frothy one-man band mode. But the even more twisted solo tornado of Bogus Ben Covington and his “Adam and Eve in the Garden” make “Gamblers Blues” and “Big Bed Bug” sound urbane.

The third disc also features tunes on traveling (James Wiggins’ piano and vocal-driven “Frisco Bound”), relationship troubles (the edgy solo guitar slinging of King Solomon Hill’s “Down on My Bended Knee” and Blind Joe Reynolds’ “Cold Woman Blues”) and tributes to stricken, soon to be legendary talents (Walter and Byrd’s “Wasn’t it Sad About Lemon” covering the unfortunate death of Blind Lemon Jefferson).

LP 4 brings the Country flash of BL Pritchard and the Scottsdale String Band’s “Stone Mountain Wobble,” the rural-city transition of Teddy Darby’s “Lawdy Lawdy Worried Blues,” the urban grit (and domestic violence tale) of Ma Rainey’s “Black Eye Blues,” and Clarence Williams & His Orchestra’s sophisticated reading of Fats Waller’s “Long Deep and Wide.” Also present are readings of warhorse standards (a slide guitar treatment of “When the Saints Go Marching In” by Blind Willie Davis) and motifs ordained to resurface decades later (“Keep a Knockin’ and You Can’t Get In” from pianist James “Boodle It” Wiggins).

By this point it should be clear Paramount was a bountiful reservoir of what Greil Marcus called the Old Weird America, and the qualities helping to shape that descriptor are plentiful on LP 5; along with idiosyncratic strains of the blues such as Skip James’ gemlike “Devil Got My Woman” and Ishman Bracey’s structurally fluid “Woman Woman Blues” there’s the jazzy strangeness of Clarence Black and His Savoy Trio’s “Cause I Feel Lowdown” and the out-in-leftfield parody of religious sermonizing that is Brother Fullbosom’s “A Sermon on a Silver Dollar.”

The eccentricity extends into LP 6 through Jesse Johnson and His Singers’ “I Wish I Had Died in Egyptland Part 1,” though the final album continues essaying the roots of Country music through the sacred aura of the Virginia Dandies’ “God’s Getting Worried” and the secular ambiance of the Kentucky Ramblers’ “Good Cocaine (Mama Don’t Allow It).”

The coverage of the blues persists as well, mixing cornerstone singing guitarists Son House (“My Black Mama Part 1”) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (“See That My Grave is Kept Clean”) with the enigmatic Geeshie Wiley (“Pick Poor Robin Clean”) and the less fêted Walter Hawkins (“A Rag Blues”) and Bessie Mae Smith (the “other one,” with “Farewell Baby Blues”). Even a bit of large-band swing is delivered by the mysterious Mandel Terry and Orchestra (a version of the Duke’s “Black and Tan Fantasy”).

This is only a portion of what’s found on the wax and naturally on the “Jobber-Luxe” USB drive; the first 200 tracks alone include an early take of the recently renowned song “Man of Constant Sorrow” as cut by likeable Old-Time stylist and Wisconsin Chair Company employee Emry Arthur, the recording debuts of Big Bill Broonzy (in the duo Big Bill and Thomps) and Roosevelt Sykes (under the name Dobby Bragg), the truth in advertising of “It’s Red Hot” by the terrifically named Red Hot Shakin’ Davis, and the half dozen sides Dock Boggs cut for the Paramount-distributed Lonesome Ace label in 1929.

Amongst other Paramount success stories a fair number of the 800 entries belong to Patton, James, Blake, and Rainey, but there’s also an absolute mess of resonant titles by obscurities like Guy Lumpkin and Six Cylinder Smith, brief appearances from such important figures as Tampa Red, the Beale St. Sheiks, and the Cincinnati Jug Band, plus unexpected contributions from Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel and even the soon to be King of “Champagne Music” himself, Lawrence Welk.

At a glance the story of Paramount appears poles apart from the daily operation of Third Man and the conceptual strategy of the reignited Revenant Records. To elaborate, it’s been repeated with frequency how the Wisconsinites knew not the brilliance they were uncovering, a fact that can surely register as diametrically opposed to the mindboggling thoroughness of its assemblage here.

It’s a difference underscored by Paramount’s cheapskate tendencies seeming at odds with Third Man and Revenant’s painstakingly ornate packaging and historically focused mission. But underneath the surface of the additional disparity between a long-ago record industry on the rise and a modern music business that’s stable but with a future still uncertain lay a commonality.

Paramount’s spend-thriftiness was heavily concerned with simply cutting records and left little room for manipulation; what’s heard throughout this set is almost entirely the vision of the performers, and it compares to our contemporary sonic landscape in illuminating fashion. The occasional seizure of a major label-cultivated smash aside, modestly-scaled artist-crafted and controlled music is on the rise and looks poised to only continue its ascent.

As the sum of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records emphasizes, even when the scales are tipped in a musicians’ favor the chances for success remain a crap shoot. But when the creative endeavor isn’t finessed, second-guessed, and otherwise compromised into irrelevancy, the potential for artistic immortality is greatly increased. Turn on thy microphone, press record, and step back.

It’s true these volumes are out of the price range of the hypothetical “average buyer,” but these songs aren’t being held hostage either, with much of the contents available for listening at far more affordable prices and even for free (for those with an internet connection or library card, anyway). Frankly, it’s life-affirming that Jack White and Dean Blackwood have sidestepped the current obsession with cost-cutting and the bottom-line to create this loving tribute to a wholly deserving subject. The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records may resist encapsulation, but it does so in the most transcendent manner possible.


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