"The Rise & Fall of Paramount Vol. 2" makes a historical impression
Revenant and Third Man collaborate for another unprecedented archival release
Late last year, both the History of the Great American Songbook and the Catalog of Amazingly Beautiful Things Music Geeks Drool Over were immeasurably expanded and elevated by the release of The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 1 (1917-27). Jointly produced by John Fahey's Revenant and Jack White's Third Man Records, Rise & Fall Vol. 1 was notable not only for the significance of its contents — 800 recordings by 172 artists issued by Paramount and its associated labels near the dawning of mass-mediated American music — but also for its deeply informative supporting material and exquisitely artful packaging.
Housed in a handcrafted oak case modeled after the kind used for phonographs in the 1920s, Rise & Fall Vol. 1 includes books and catalogs filled with historical narratives and biographical sketches, commercial artwork and advertisements, and whimsical artifacts. The recordings were stored on a metal-crafted USB device resembling a phono needle housing, and a select number of tracks were pressed onto six vinyl disks impregnated with swirls of color, which made the albums look like burled wood, and wrapped in a folio laser-etched from a single sheet of white birch.
Faced with a ridiculously stellar opening act to follow, the production team assembled for The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Vol. 2 (1928-32) began their quest by posing the following question, in the words of Dean Blackwood, president of Revenant Records: "What would Paramount have done back in the day, had the company given a shit, and had it possessed the resources of one of its well-heeled competitors like RCA Victor?"
Evidently, the Grafton, Wis.-based record company would have created a package that measures up to its predecessor in every possible aspect, but in a stylistically different form. Rise & Fall Vol. 2 contains 800 digital tracks by 170-plus artists; more than 90 restored period Paramount ads from the Chicago Defender; six LPs pressed on white vinyl, each side distinguished by a hand-etched numeral and a holographic image; a 250-page hardcover book chronicling the latter chapter of Paramount's fascinating history; a field guide with artist bios and a discography; and a music-and-image app with all tracks and ads stored on a USB drive, which looks like the coolest car hood ornament ever made. The whole shebang is tucked into a sleek art deco-style polished aluminum and stainless steel cabinet/attaché case, which pays homage to the leaders of the Streamline Moderne industrial design movement, especially John Vassos. Vassos designed most of the elegantly jet age-style RCA Victor radios of the day, including the Special Model series of portable phonographs upon which the Rise & Fall Vol. 2 cabinet is based.
"With its quarter-sawn oak tiger-stripe wood grains, Vol. 1 takes on the rough-hewn Craftsman furniture styling of 'teens- and early twenties-America," Blackwood says. "Vol. 2 reflects the country's love affair with the streamlined profiles of the 1930s machine age, which perhaps is the first form of modernist design that we could uniquely claim as our own."
The music on Rise & Fall Vol. 2 is similar in breadth, scope, and quality to what Vol. 1 has but is different in significant ways. Vol. 2 contains more jazz, more blues, plenty of gospel, and fewer novelty songs, which isn't to say there is a shortage of exotically entertaining material.
Could there be a creepier, more mournful blues than Slim Barton and Eddie Mapp's "Wicked Treatin' Blues (take A)?" Mapp's dulcet harmonica opens the song in a dirgelike rhythm as Barton, who usually accompanies on guitar, lays down his instrument to alternately intone and moan his way through the lyrics: "You will miss me by my walk/You will miss me by my talk/But I ain't comin' home anymore." Mapp, who was born in Social Circle, Ga., played harmonica with Atlanta-based musicians including Curley Weaver, "Barbecue" Bob Hicks and his brother Charlie. Together, they performed as the Georgia Cotton Pickers.
The peach state is amply represented on Rise & Fall Vol. 2, which features performances by Ma Rainey, "Georgia" Tom Dorsey, and Tampa Red, among others.
Inadvertently, it would seem, based on the account penned by Scott Blackwood (Dean's brother), Paramount is the most important single source of early Mississippi Delta blues. The label's catalog contains some of the most influential and collectible recordings in history, by artists such as Skip James, Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, Lottie Kimbrough, Meade Lux Lewis, Blind Joe Taggart, Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas, and the Mississippi Sheiks.
"The whole project really takes its contours from Jack White," says Blackwood, referring to the White Stripes guitarist and founder of Nashville's Third Man Records. "The design form really didn't attain liftoff until he articulated this vision about leveraging Paramount's furniture-making pedigree — echoing his own — and setting up a sort of back story for the set."
Other members of the Paramount team deserving mention include Alex van der Tuuk, arguably the world's leading Paramount scholar and co-producer of the set; sonic wizard Christopher King, who turned a pile of audible trash into a trove of listening pleasure; David Glasser and Anna Frick at Airshow Mastering, who digitized everything; Katie Deedy and Tony Mostrom, who created hundreds of illustrations for the collection; Susan Archie, who gathered and restored the original Paramount artwork, among other tasks; and Bryce McCloud, described by Blackwood as "the design and build guy most deserving of a genius grant."
"The musicians captured in these two volumes were the first to play back to us what we really sounded like as a country — on our street corners and in our nightclubs, dance halls and show tents; at our fish fries and country suppers — earlier and with much more comprehensive scope and richness than a preservationist body like the Library of Congress," Blackwood says. "We wanted to tell that story in a different way by creating an interactive museum exhibit that lets you call on all the sounds, smell the bindings and wood and metalwork, and conjure up all the ghosts by putting your hands on everything."
Interactive museum exhibits. Cabinets of wonder. The Rise & Fall of Paramount releases set an exceptionally high standard for archival compilations. Together, they constitute an essential repository for anyone interested in the history of American vernacular music.