Last night, a group of music industry executives and cultural scholars gathered to celebrate the legacy of one of America’s first record labels.
Yale’s African-American Studies department welcomed artist and Third Man Records owner Jack White and Revenant Records owner Dean Blackwood to a discussion focusing on the second installation of their recent vinyl reissue project, “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records.” The two were joined by authors Greil Marcus and Scott Blackwood, and artist Adia Victoria. Hundreds of people attended the event, which took place in an overcrowded Battell Chapel.
In her opening remarks, African-American studies and theater studies professor Daphne Brooks emphasized the historical importance of Paramount Records as a record label that gave a voice to artists who otherwise may not have had a chance to showcase their talents.
“This is people being who they were: complicated, changeable, human,” she said. “This is the music of a people, many of whom are gone but not forgotten.”
The event primarily consisted of a listening session in which each speaker selected two songs from the Paramount Records collection to showcase the record label’s cultural impact. White had the audience listen to a pair of blues songs — Blind Blake’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” and Charley Patton’s “Spoonful Blues.” Marcus followed the blues theme in choosing “Hard Time Killin’ for Blues” by Skip James and “Last Kind Word Blues” by Geeshie Wiley. White said he chose “Spoonful Blues” because of the song’s emotional intensity as well as its blend of religious and secular themes.
Paramount Records operated from 1917 until 1932, employing obscure artists from minority communities and selling records to minority groups, thereby capitalizing on the so-called “race record” industry. Dean Blackwood highlighted Paramount’s surprising origins, noting that the company began as a manufacturer of speaker cabinets. He noted that Paramount was initially the Wisconsin Chair Company, adding that the company started producing records as a means of boosting its speaker cabinet sales.
Blackwood emphasized that Paramount produced the first-ever solo artist recordings, noting that before these records existed, practically all recorded music was of large ensembles, such as orchestras and big bands. He said that the music of many early American folk, gospel, jazz and blues artists would not have been preserved had Paramount not been so widely accepting of minority voices, adding that musicians such as Louis Armstrong were among those discovered by Paramount.
But Dean Blackwood noted that Paramount’s recording policy was grounded in more of an economic than an artistic or social objective. He explained that because the company’s primary aim was to sell their speaker cabinets and also could not afford to sign major artists, it was willing to record the music of any artist as long as that music could generate revenue for the business.
“They had no preservationist mission. They had no egalitarian mission. Nothing like that,” Blackwood said. “But they were uniquely comprehensive in their representing people who otherwise would be without a voice, especially in what they called ‘race records,’ which where black performers marketed to black audiences.”
Seven attendees interviewed said they decided to attend the event because they were admirers of Jack White’s music, but learned a great deal about the impact of Paramount Records on American music. John Flynn ’18 said he thinks the project is significant in raising public awareness of a topic that had remained in obscurity for nearly a century.
White highlighted the profound but unintended historical consequences of Paramount’s recordings, given the fact that the company never expected its records to be of any cultural value or influence.
“What’s beautiful about Paramount, though, is … the accidental capturing of American culture for the sake of a dollar,” White said.
The first volume of “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records’”was named Best New Reissue by Pitchfork Media in 2013.