‘The Rise & Fall of Paramount’ makes a historical impression

Revenant and Third Man collaborate for unprecedented archival release

In late September, a collector in Grants Pass, Ore., paid $37,100 for a 78 rpm recording by Tommy Johnson, a legendary musician from the Mississippi Delta whose influence on American blues arguably rivals better known artists, such as Skip James, Son House, and Charley Patton. The album’s two sides, “Alcohol and Jake Blues” and “Riding Horse,” were recorded in December 1929 and released by the Grafton, Wis.-based Paramount Records.

Coincidentally, at a September press conference held in Nashville, Revenant Records co-founder Dean Blackwood and Third Man Records head honcho Jack White unveiled The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27). The first installment in a two-part series, The Rise and Fall is an unprecedented assemblage of recordings, images, and text chronicling the saga of the Wisconsin Chair Company subsidiary, which was founded to boost sales of the new-fangled “talking machines” (phonographs) the furniture manufacturer had started producing.

At a time when young musicians mine traditional American idioms to the point of exhaustion, the quest for authenticity becomes fraught with real consequences. For every Mumford & Sons there is a legion of listeners and bloggers with deep knowledge and good ears who can tell the difference between a stolen riff and an inspired variation on a theme.

For aficionados, The Rise and Fall is a mother lode of historical significance, extracted from a heretofore inaccessible patch of ore, processed, filtered, and meticulously reproduced for wider distribution. For the casual listener, the product of Blackwood and White’s obsessions represents an important esoteric discovery, like the confirmation of a new subatomic particle. You don’t have to know exactly what it is or does to appreciate the crucial importance of its role in the grand scheme of things.

“Going back to my earliest earfuls of the scratchy stuff in the 1980s and to Revenant’s first days in the mid-’90s when we started putting together our collections of early American music — Charley Patton, American Primitive Volumes One and Two, and Dock Boggs whose records on Lonesome Ace were pressed by Paramount — you could not avoid bumping up against things in the Paramount orbit,” Blackwood says.

From 1917 until the company’s demise in 1935, Paramount released thousands of 78s, the most notable and abundant of which were “race records,” a contemporaneous term for albums featuring black artists marketed to black Americans. Grouped under the moniker in Paramount’s catalog were blues and jazz musicians both historically familiar (Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Louis Armstrong) and largely unheralded (Ivy Smith, Rabbits Foot Williams, Perry Bradford), minstrel and vaudeville songs, jug and string band tunes, and spiritual hymns. Also interspersed amid Paramount’s pre-war output were old-time hillbilly and rural folk songs, show tunes, Broadway hits, and novelty numbers by kazoo bands and calliope troupes.

Three years ago, to get a better handle on Paramount’s complex web of activities, including direct and ancillary relationships with labels such as Black Swan, Puritan, Gennett, and Famous, Blackwood created a timeline, which incorporated an organizational chart. When White saw the outline, the White Stripes founder’s interests were immediately piqued.

Blackwood and White assembled an all-star team including production designer (and Grammy-winning Atlanta resident) Susan Archie, illustrator Katie Deedy, co-producer and lead researcher/discographer Alex van der Tuuk (author of Paramount’s Rise and Fall: The Roots and History of Paramount Records), and materials procurement specialists Integrated Communications Los Angeles (ICLA). Supported by Blackwood’s organizational skills and White’s passionate drive and considerable resources, The Rise and Fall came in on time and within a reasonable semblance of the budget.

“This has easily been the most satisfying creative partnership I’ve ever been a part of,” Blackwood says, whose Austin, Texas-based Revenant label is the spawn of a collaboration with the late John Fahey.

As an objet d’art and historical compendium The Rise and Fall is the manifestation of a record geek’s most expectant fantasy. The “cabinet of wonders” is crafted from quarter sawn oak and emblazoned with a raised medallion of the Paramount logo. The richly grained container is designed to mimic a portable Victrola phonograph right down to a hole in the side for the turntable crank.

Cradled in a sage green velvet-lined interior are 800 musical selections stored on a flash drive in a metal housing machined to resemble the sound box of a vintage phonograph arm. There’s also a 250-page history of Paramount authored by Blackwood’s brother, Scott, a “Field Manual” with biographical and session notes tracing the recorded output for 172 artists, and more, including artwork and promotional materials unseen since the label’s heyday.

Perhaps the most wondrous of wonders within the Paramount cabinet is a folio crafted from a single sheet of laser-etched white birch, which houses six 180-gram records. Each album is center-stamped with a gold leaf design and impregnated with a colorful swirling pattern resembling burled wood. Pressed into the records is an 87-track subset of the digital collection.

“Jack wanted to make sure we did things, as he put it, ‘the way Paramount would have done it if they had money and gave a shit,’ which became our mantra,” Blackwood says.

It’s no stretch to say White and Blackwood succeeded in accomplishing their ambitious, if not audacious mission. The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27) has set a new standard for archival collections, while arguably creating a category of heirloom artifact all its own. At $400 — $36,700 less than the recently unearthed Tommy Johnson Paramount disk — Revenant and Third Man’s 21st century cabinet of curiosities is the bargain of a lifetime for anyone interested in early American music.