Book Review: Sheet Music

Scott Blackwood

Sheet Music

The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-27)

by Scott Blackwood
Third Man Records/Revenant Records, $399

Produced in conjunction with roots music pioneer John Fahey's Revenant Records, the latest endeavor from Jack White's wondrous Third Man Records may be the White Striped Raconteur's most ambitious yet. Creating an experience as much as an archive, The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records breathes life into a largely forgotten imprint that helped transform 20th century music. Included in the oak cabinet are six 180-gram LPs on chestnut-colored vinyl, 800 remastered digital tracks, and two books: a 360-page "field guide" to Paramount's discography, and a 250-page hardcover narrative tracing the unlikely success of the label. As the latter's Scott Blackwood outlines, Paramount's indelible contribution to early race records sprang from the Wisconsin Chair Company's efforts to sell more phonograph players. And yet, in the label's brief 15 years, it pressed the first recordings by Jelly Roll Morton, discovered and brought to prominence Blind Lemon Jefferson, and captured some of the most transformational blues and jazz artists of the period, from Ma Rainey and Blind Blake to Louis Armstrong. Novelist, former Austinite, and onetime Chronicle contributor, Blackwood provides less an exhaustive history than a poetic, character-driven account that evokes a mood and context through which to understand Paramount's impact and the tableau of Chicago amidst the Great Migration. Building from the academic work of co-producer Alex van der Tuuk's 2003 book Paramount's Rise and Fall, Blackwood casts a scene and atmosphere, his lyrical sketches of artists and settings inspiring more potential stories to be further pursued than answers. Volume One begins at the end, in December 1933 on the rooftop of the Grafton, Wis., factory as Blackwood re-imagines the announcement of the company's bankruptcy and white employees flinging boxes of black discs down into the Milwaukee River below. The scene unfolds with a poignancy that reveals the author's more novelistic intentions, which also emerge in his portraits of the label's most fascinating character, Mayo Williams, the first black executive of a white-owned record company and complex figure who demands his own biography. Like extensive liner notes, the text becomes a threshold for entry into the music and the exhaustive catalog of period artwork in the cabinet. An extraordinary project, Rise and Fall eagerly anticipates Volume Two's release in November 2014. (Scott and brother Dean Blackwood – co-founder of Revenant – appear at TBF on Sunday, 2:30pm, at Capitol Extension, Rm. E2.014.)

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Paramount Records, Texas Book Festival 2013

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