This expensive but historical and quite beautiful box set was put out jointly by Revenant Records and Jack White’s Third Man Records. I have not yet heard it, and probably will never be able to own it, due to the cost but anyone who is able to afford it should pick it up immediately. This is nothing less than what became the future of American music.
This review comes from Grayson Cullin on the Pitchfork Media website, dated Nov. 22nd…
The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records: Vol. 1 (1917–1932) arrives like a family of nested matryoshka dolls. Sent by post, the 22-pound compendium comes in a wide and thick cardboard box, with the name and address of Paramount’s parent enterprise, the long-extinct Wisconsin Chair Company, branded on the side for the sake of authentic anachronism. Inside, two-inch walls of Styrofoam and a plastic sheath protect what Third Man and Revenant Records, the project’s operational partners, call The Cabinet of Wonder.
The hinged-and-clasped oak Cabinet bears Paramount’s iconic medallion on the outside, an eagle with its wings spread and head cocked, talons locked into the label’s name and positioned in front of a grooved record that suggests a morning’s rising sun. The set smells of varnish and glue and furniture—sweet but a little sour, too. Clasp popped, five distinct layers of wonder follow: a batch of six marbled brown LPs housed in an old-fashioned wooden binder; a velum envelope containing replications of ephemera from the earliest days of the recording industry; a hard-cover volume that tells the story of that troublesome start and its biggest stars; and a phone-book sized catalogue that does its best to detail nearly every performer included and, for the first time ever, name each of the thousands of records Paramount released in its two-decade lifespan.
The littlest doll, wedged into a specially cut hole in the green felt platform that lines the box, is a tarnished brass flash drive, playfully dubbed a Jobber-Luxe. The contraption is crafted to look like the reproducer-and-needle assembly of one of the Wisconsin Chair Company’s Vista Talking Machines, the reason they got into the nebulous and uncertain business of selling records, anyway. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the set’s creative anachronism. The drive contains 800 songs culled from Paramount’s first decade, a fitful and suddenly fertile period that, in many ways, shaped the landscape for the rise of a recording industry anchored on jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and country music. Taken together, these recordings are no less than one blueprint of what has become American music.
Through scrupulous research, audacious design, and ostentatious packaging, this two-volume collection’s first installment does precisely what the best box sets intend to do—add proper deference and context to music that remains vital and significant. Retailing for $400, The Rise and Fall is no doubt expensive, especially considering that there’s a second and complementary volume forthcoming. But at once, it’s a history lesson, a dance hall, a bandstand, and a smoky blues parlor, all tucked neatly into one sturdy box. This is the Cabinet of Wonder, indeed.
The Paramount Records story is one of American entertainment’s great musical curiosities and catalysts. The label started slowly and without certainty, publishing cheap singles so that the people buying monolithic turntables from the Wisconsin Chair Company would actually have something to hear. The label operated with eternal economy, using talent scouts instead of investing in field recording equipment, forgoing demos, and working in cheap studios where even some of the best takes were of mediocre quality.
But the real jolt to the company—and the reason this set so closely mirrors the sound at the start of its country’s music industry—came with the arrival of Mayo Williams. A proud and cunning black man and former professional football player, Williams had gone to Brown and worked a stint as a salesman for the blues-and-jazz-heavy record label Black Swan. When Paramount purchased Black Swan, he traveled to Wisconsin from Chicago in 1923 to ask for a job; he emerged as a talent scout, a talent manager, and the true pioneer of the short-lived empire that pushed Paramount toward the front of the emerging “race records” industry—that is, recording black music to sell to black listeners.
“There’s 14 million Negroes in our great country and they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle,” Mamie Smith’s impresario, Perry Bradford, had said in 1920. Mamie had happened upon a hit for Okeh; the year Williams arrived in Wisconsin, Bessie Smith had done the same at Columbia. Williams’ professed specialty had become a suddenly hot commodity and his subsequent discovery, advocacy, and management of his artists made stars that, in turn, made movements. With Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters, Williams turned Paramount into an artistic institution if only by sheer commercial willpower. Williams left the company in 1927, the year that this volume—which documents the rise of Paramount just before its Depression-abetted fall—ends.
The structure and sound of many of the songs found throughout The Rise and Fall and within the archives of Paramount’s peers proved foundational to the shape of modern music. But pondering the historical implications of Papa Charlie Jackson’s acrid wit and aggressive playing or the twinkling roar of Jimmy Blythe’s piano runs the risk of ignoring this set’s most incredible invitation: to let these songs simply play (on vinyl, in iTunes, or through the customized and customizable playlists included on the Jobber-Luxe) and to immerse oneself in some incredible, make-or-break performances. It’s tempting to get lost in the high-design grandeur of the Cabinet of Wonder, but this music—gathered piecemeal from the collections of enthusiasts all over the world, fighting always through a scrim of static on these remastered recordings—is the raison d’être, the heart of a box alive with history.
When these songs were made, they existed on the bleeding edge of entertainment and society, with black suddenly meeting white, farm suddenly meeting city, sound suddenly meeting cylinder. Indeed, many of the performers here, such as Ma Rainey, represent the coming senescence of their chosen forms, while folks like blues patriarch Blind Lemon Jefferson, plainspoken country singer Ernest Stoneman and the incredibly versatile pianist Lovie Austin, all included here, represent the development of their own respective frontiers. Rise and Fall lets you slip back into that moment, to pretend that these blues and sermons and silly songs are your vernacular, too.
Allow that, and the Wonders come quickly. Jelly Roll Morton and Ma Rainey, James P. Johnson and Blind Blake, the North Carolina Ramblers and Fletcher Henderson: They’re among the popular standbys represented here. But the real joy of these 800 tracks comes with the personal discoveries. Alabama bluesman Ed Bell recorded only four songs for Paramount in 1927. All included in this box, they share a childlike sense of rhythm, with Bell starting and stopping and bounding between tinny notes in fits of whimsy. His voice is not as heavy or as haunting as those of his Southern contemporaries, giving it a singsong approachability. There are two 1924 tunes from Ukulele “Bob” Williams, where social provocation supporting the then-jailed Marcus Garvey and Republican public policy takes the guise of jaunty little numbers for four strings and a jubilant voice. The Norfolk Jubilee Quartette delivers wonderfully woozy harmonies, particularly on the stepwise and springy “Pleading Blues” or their torpid and bass-anchored “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. Over swiveling horns and simple piano, Baltimore’s Viola Bartlette winks and smiles as she sings of the archetypal dilemma between welcoming a new lover and not disappointing old dad, either. Trixie Smith takes a decidedly less reserved approach on “My Man Rocks Me (with One Steady Roll)”, a salacious tune about sex that lasts for the better part of a day (13 hours!) and treats double entendre and suggestive rhymes as conscripts. “There’s no slippin’ when he once takes hold,” she purrs, pointing a direct arrow toward the radio dial nearly a century later.
But The Rise and Fall is not just a glob of music. One of the most carefully considered sets I’ve ever seen, it puts these 800 tunes and the entire Paramount picture into a multidimensional context. Due to a lack of proper record-keeping, many of these sessions, songs, and musicians still hover in a cloud of mystery. Who played what on a session? When were they recorded? What songs are still left to be discovered? Thanks to an encyclopedic ream of research done by some of the most dedicated names in this particular act of audio archeology, The Rise and Fall works in earnest to tell the stories behind it all. The set includes hundreds of advertisements rescued from the era and recreates in toto a 1924 Paramount catalogue and The Paramount Book of Blues, a 1927 guide to the label that featured several laughable dossiers of the artists and bunches of sheet music.
Aside from hours of intrigue, such materials also make it clear that not much has changed during 90 years of the music industry: Just as Third Man proprietor Jack White and Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach feud in public now, so did diametric vixens Alberta Hunter and Ethel Waters then. Just as big labels seek the next trend on which to turn a fast dime now, Paramount’s pursuit of black musicians stemmed from surprise hits on other labels then. And just as social media now attempts to lure listeners via must-click-here promotion, Paramount’s illustrated advertisements in the Chicago Defender and its insistence that it had discovered singers then practically demanded that regular folks spend more on their records than anything else in life. “Race’s Favorite Stars on Paramount,” read one 1923 promotion. “Every Christian home will prize this record,” read another, stopping just short of suggesting that not buying that particular Norfolk Jubilee Quartette single would guarantee eternal damnation. The music industry, it seems, always begot high stakes.
In the beginning and, really, throughout most of the label’s history, the executives at Paramount and its parent company did not seem to understand the important trove they were building. During half of the era covered in this volume, for instance, the label released lots of baubles and bores, patriotic songs and symphonic recordings that simply didn’t excite like what came later. The possibility of music hadn’t occurred to them. And even when Williams was leading the race record series to dizzying sales and helping fuel the sound of a nation now suddenly listening, he wasn’t on salary. Otto Moeser, the president of the whole operation, once instructed Williams to take the freight elevator to a meeting in a lavish Chicago hotel. This was the 20s, after all, and Williams was a black man marketing records to black customers. That same oblivion resulted in the incomplete records and the destruction of the label’s archives when it went belly-up, a scene vividly limned by Scott Blackwood in the wondrous liner notes. Such retrospective ignorance makes the trove of The Rise and Fall that much more remarkable, valuable, and edifying. This is almost-lost history, faithfully restored.
But Third Man and Revenant seem to have the opposite—if notably less problematic—quandary: They truly understand the cultural and historical cachet of what they have gathered, and they present it with a clear respect. That’s something that Paramount itself, with its budget materials and condescending advertisements that played fast and loose with social stereotypes, certainly did not. But now, the riches come tucked away in a new oak box, lavishly packaged and highly priced so that mostly only the rich old men who already have an enthusiasm for this stuff will have access to it. It’s a reissue cycle that seems to push the music only another decade or so away from extinction. These Cabinets of Wonder, however impressive, will slowly but almost certainly become Coffins of Disuse, limited to the 5,000 people who hoard them.
“If people only want the songs, there are probably are other sources for most of it,” Dean Blackwood, who co-founded Revenant with his management client and friend John Fahey in the mid 90s, told me recently. “This is more about people with a fascination for the tactile and sensory world. That just can’t be replicated in the digital realm.”
But it doesn’t need to be that way. With a sigh, Blackwood adds that selling the 5,000 manufactured copies of each volume will essentially make The Rise and Fall effort a break-even enterprise, despite the decade of work and global contributions that went into it. Why, then, not pad the income a bit by making the music accessible to those who can’t plunk down a car payment on a box set, perhaps by selling the USB drives for $100 or streaming the assets through a subscription service, such as the one provided to the press for this release? If the point of this labor is to give the music included both reverence and eternal life, as its mere existence suggests, is there any better end than making sure as many people as possible hear it? Why save something only to let it sink into sure atrophy?
Almost a century ago, the miserly folks at Paramount would have found a way to make sure more people heard these tunes, if only to make yet another dollar. There’s something commendable about not doing that, but you can’t really hear that, can you?