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The Milwaukee River Blues

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Grafton’s Mississippi Blues Trail Marker To Be Erected

When people think of country blues, aka prewar blues – roughly the late 19th century to shortly before World War II – music, their thoughts drift to the hot, languid days of the Mississippi Delta, including Arkansas. After all, isn’t that area always touted as the birthplace of the blues?

There’s a strong showing from Texas, too. And how ‘bout the Piedmont, the foothills of the Appalachians, which extend from Virginia all the way to Georgia and Alabama? All these areas have strong showings in blues and roots music.

When people think of Wisconsin, on the other hand, what comes to mind? First thought: cold. Second thought: snow, ass-deep on a ten-foot Indian. Third thought: cheese. Fourth thought: cheeseheads. Fifth: flyover country. Sixth and seventh thoughts: Lawrence Welk and Liberace. But the vast majority of people, even blues aficionados, don’t connect Wisconsin with the blues. So when the Grafton community decided to host a Paramount Blues Festival in 2006, people were confused. Wisconsin? Blues?

What most people don’t realize is that the original Paramount company – not the one that wears the name today, by the way – was formed in a humble chair company in an out-of-the-way small town not far from Lake Michigan, roughly 20 miles north of Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Chair Company was the progenitor of the original Paramount company, the same one that produced records and the same one that recorded roughly a quarter of the most important, and most expensive today, blues records in the world.

They include records by Charley Patton, Son House, Henry Townsend, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Skip James, the Reverend Thomas Dorsey, considered by most to be the founder of Gospel recording in this country, and many others. Also, there’s Blind Lemon Jefferson, whose name was the model for Blind Melon Chitlin, Cheech and Chong’s infamous comedy skit character.

Two of these people, James and House, were products of the successful quest of the early-1960s “blues hunters” who flourished briefly then, people who went out looking for these “race records” greats. They recorded in the late 1920s and very early 1930s, until the Great Depression blew holes in many businesses. And they hadn’t been heard of since.

Many were long gone, but these blues hunters did manage to scare up a few, and brought them back to the concert circuit, beginning with the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, the same time and place that Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were becoming household names.

Well, it’s time for Grafton and Wisconsin to get its due. And September 18th, during the fifth annual Grafton Blues Festival, is when it will come. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker will be erected during a special ceremony in Grafton.

While the vast majority of any leftovers from the old Paramount company are long gone, most of them destroyed, the town of Grafton finally got its act together, beginning around 2004, thanks mostly to the efforts begun by Angela Mack. Mack was enough of a thorn in the side of the city fathers and business leaders to get them interested, and more importantly, to get them moving. The results are astounding, and the Trail Marker is the one of those results.

You’d have to visit Grafton to realize just how much impact one bored housewife had on the blues industry, and on blues history, Paramount’s in particular. A good time to start would be September 17-18, 2010, during the annual blues festival held there. And if you’re interested in learning a little about this historic festival, Paramount Records, and these intriguing musicians, here are some links to explore:

ParamountsHome
Grafton Blues Association
Blues Foundation
Grafton WI website

And if you’re interested in finding out even more, look for several new websites cranking up. At the moment, the sites are on hold. The sites’ founder, however, is working diligently to bring them to fruition. He says they’ll all be up and running by the end of the month. It’s too late for the Grafton Blues Festival, but check the association’s site for those details.

Paramount Blues Websites are www.ParamountBlues.com, www.ParamountBlues.org, www.ParamountBlues.net, and www.ParamountBlues.biz.

At the moment, they all lead you to the same place, which says that the site will be active soon. Check in periodically for progress.

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About Lou Novacheck