Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Suitcases Full of Blues: The Revenant/third Man Paramount "Cabinets of Wonder"

Academic journal article ARSC Journal

Suitcases Full of Blues: The Revenant/third Man Paramount "Cabinets of Wonder"

Article excerpt

Prologue: A new kind of set

Among the most sumptuous retrospectives containing recordings in recent years are the two Rise and Fall of Paramount Records sets jointly released by Revenant Records and Third Man Records in 2013 and 2014. (1) Their appearances were hailed in the mainstream media, including National Public Radio, CBS and PBS television, Rolling Stone, Time, and the Wall Street Journal (see appendices A and B for selected lists of news notices). What surprised reporters and reviewers were not only the abundance of music and text, but also the physical housings in which the materials were packaged. As Revenant owner Dean Blackwood wrote to me upon the release of volume 1, "Yes, it has left the world of box sets far behind--Patton and Ayler were the best of that kind, but they were of that kind, after all." (2)

Blackwood explained to Downbeat magazine's Bill Meyer what he meant by leaving the world of box sets far behind: "Boxed sets are a ghetto, limited by their category. It's a thing with an ephemeral quality we wanted to get away from. We didn't want to imitate a form, but to achieve the form itself. It's more like a piece of furniture, or a first edition book." (3) In order to take on at least the form of a piece of furniture, a musical retrospective would have to set the priority of the recorded music to equal standing to the visual and tactile materials. Doing so is a considerable aesthetic risk to the music. But it is entirely appropriate to do so for Paramount Records, because the label's owner was a furniture company.

In the present article, I will give an account of the preparations made for the two sets, from conception to publication, and offer a summary of the lessons learned. Then I will appraise the contents, showing what new may be learned about Paramount Records and African American entertainment of the 1910s and 1920s. Finally, I will offer some collector's points for both sets, in order to inform readers if they have opportunities to purchase used copies from dealers.

Revenant since 2001 & Paramount to 1932

As Blackwood said to PBS television interview show host Charlie Rose, "Sooner or later we were [Revenant was] going to have to come to Paramount." (4) Revenant was established in 1998 by guitarist John Fahey (1934-2001) with Blackwood to retrieve and release "raw musics" (as Dean described to me in 2000) and "neglected gems." (5) Chief among Fahey's projects was a complete reissue of the recordings of Mississippi Delta bluesman Charley Patton (1891-1934), on whom Fahey had written and published a master's thesis. (6) Patton made most of his records for Paramount, to whom he also successfully placed his musical associates Henry "Son" Sims, Eddie "Son" House, Willie Brown, and Louise Johnson. Just these five musicians alone would link early recorded Mississippi blues to Paramount, but also Skip James, Tommy Johnson and Ishman Bracey were on the same label (for whom Bracey recorded "Suitcase Full of Blues" in 1930). As pioneering Paramount historians Stephan Calt and Gayle Wardlow had learned for themselves in the 1980s (their five-part history of Paramount for 78 Quarterly is cited in Appendix C), the willingness of Paramount to record anyone--including African Americans from Mississippi--was truly remarkable, but not altruistic.

The Wisconsin Chair Company had founded Paramount Records in 1917 as what we would call today a "loss leader." The company was building wooden cabinets for phonographs, at a time when playback equipment was considered as much a piece of furniture in the living room as chairs, couches, and tables. Paramount was established to record and press discs to be offered as incentives to customers to purchase a Vista model or some other phonograph with a Wisconsin Chair cabinet. It may be no accident, then, that the earliest version of the Paramount label showed an eagle with a phonograph cabinet in its talons (it would be soon replaced with the eagle on the world). …

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