I am PUMPED!
I just got back from watching a performance of Grafton City Blues, a stage play which premiered here in Milwaukee. The play is an homage to the old Paramount recording company (not to be confused with the current Paramount company). Before its demise, the old Paramount recorded at least a quarter of the most important blues records ever made. The play is at the Stackner Cabaret in the Milwaukee Repertory, and runs until March 9th. Tickets can be obtained online.
Paramount was begun with the sole goal of furthering the sales of phonograph cabinets. Young people people of today can hardly fathom such a thing. A phonograph in a cabinet! Whatever for? Compared to today's music machines, which have the general size and shape of a pack of cigarettes, the phonograph of the past century was huge, like a big-screen TV of today. It was also a lot more fragile. We're used to a device like a music player being pocketable and durable, not something that requires a large case to transport and protect.
Paramount started in the small town of Grafton, Wisconsin, at a manufacturing plant known as the Wisconsin Chair Company. The manufacture of 78-rpm records was considered a gimmick to sell more phonographs. "Buy a phonograph and get a record (or two) free!" Such was turn-of-the-(20th)-century marketing, nothing more, nothing less.
Like many businesses today, Paramount was run by people who knew their original business, but had absolutely no clue how to run the one they'd stumbled into. They learned as they went along, often not quickly enough. In that case, the important thing was to be smart enough to know when they weren't smart enough, and hire people who actually know what they were doing. Unfortunately, also like a lot of businesses today, the suits may be smart enough to recognize the need to hire more knowledgeable blood, but then, a little ways down the road, their consummate self-confidence and ego overtake reality. They decide they're now smart enough to be able to get rid of the people they hired to get the company into a profitable posture in the first place. And they almost inevitably decide to get rid of these employees at the worst possible time.
Paramount also used inferior materials and methods, such as clay taken from the banks of the river just outside the door, in order to increase their profit on the records. But even with the shoddy materials and production, the clicks and hums and pops in the recordings, some of these "race" records, if you can even find one, well, let's just say that you could buy yourself a very, very nice car with what you'd get for it. That should tell you something about the measure of the talent and the scarcity of those original discs.
Paramount was smart enough to hire Mayo Williams, who was more than likely the first black executive in an otherwise white business in the US. Williams was a college graduate at a time when most whites didn't even dream of going to college. Along with several white Paramount stringers, he recognized and eventually recorded some of the best country blues musicians of the time.
The economy began to go bad – like today – and the Wisconsin Chair Company unwisely got rid of many of the very people who had brought them the boom times in the first place. By then, however, it was too late to cover their mistakes, and by 1932 it was all over but the wake. Paramount was dead; the Great Depression was chewing people and businesses up at an alarming rate. After barely a decade of boom, there followed a lifetime of ignominy for the greatest blues records of all time.
Tales abound about the disposition of the records and their metal "mothers" or masters. There were stories of disgruntled employees taking them out of the warehouse and sailing them like Frisbees into the river that ran just outside the factory; stories of metal masters being fished out of the river (probably untrue); stories of them being sold for scrap during the World War Two scrap drives (more than likely true).
But oh, what a decade! That's what Grafton City Blues is all about. Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Skip James, Louis Armstrong, Willie Brown – even Thomas A. Dorsey, generally considered the progenitor of today's Gospel music, started his recording career with Paramount. And there were probably another 50 wonderful blues musicians who deserve to be named here, all of whom recorded for Paramount during that wild decade.
Grafton City Blues is a lean, spare production, with a dearth of props and cast, but a surfeit of energy and talent. Four cast members do it all, at various times taking on several different personae as the plot dictates, along with the requisite accents and mannerisms. The play is very well written. Many of the small things that went into Paramount's upward climb and subsequent demise are skillfully woven into the script. The talented cast interprets the playwright Kevin Ramsey's intentions and writing perfectly.
More than anything, however, Grafton City Blues is about the music, the glorious, sad, angry, wonderful music now commonly known as Prewar Blues, or Country Blues. It's about the rent parties, the frolics, the moonshine, the women. (Most of the artists were men.) That magnificent "Devil's Music" was also closely related to Gospel music, which is touched upon several times. The production includes more than 30 selections, enough to satisfy both sides of the equation.
The play presents a capsule history of the company, giving the good and the ignominious equal play – the fatal fires; the slapdash "recording studio," an otherwise unused top-floor room "soundproofed" with blankets and cardboard; the professional acumen of the company executives in building the company, followed by their ineptitude in the recording industry.
The cast includes Juson Williams in the role of the storyteller, who does an admirable impression of Blind Lemon Jefferson; Jannie Jones, herself a product of parents who thought of the blues as the Devil's Music, and who does perfect justice to Rainey's "Black Bottom;" Jeremy Cohen, who plays piano, sings, and does spot-on impersonations of the unique Wisconsin accent, intonations, and mannerisms; and Chicago bluesman Eric Noden, whose mastery of the National Steel Resonator guitar brings absolute authenticity to a stellar production.
The musical highlights include Ma Rainey's "Black Bottom," which will have you laughing and bouncing on your seat, and Blind Lemon's "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," in a sad yet beautiful scene about Lemon's tragic death on the streets of Chicago in the icy winter of 1929.
What's left untold is the shunning by the townspeople of Grafton's history for so many years, as if the residents were ashamed of this rich history. The sudden turnaround in the collective memory, which occurred only in the past few years, can be attributed to a handful of people, and blues fans the world over should be thankful. There's now a Paramount Restaurant on one side of a pocket-sized square dedicated to Paramount in the center of the little town. There is also what blues enthusiasts and history buffs hope to become an annual event, the Paramount Blues Festival. The two-year-old Festival sorely needs some new organizational blood; the enthusiasm is most certainly there, and that's a start, but the understanding and knowledge of blues history is not, and the Festival needs it to survive.