The early blues rose from its long interment on Monday, as musical devotees gathered in Battell Chapel for the panel “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records” and experienced the resurrection of old, old tunes from the Paramount archive. The leaders in this quest were Scott and Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records; the musician Adia Victoria; Daphne Brooks, a Yale professor; Greil Marcus, the foremost commentator of American music and culture; and Jack White of the White Stripes, often heralded as the savior of rock and roll.
But the panelists themselves mattered little, and the songs from the Paramount Records archive, which spans the years 1917 to 1932, reigned supreme. Audience and panelists alike seemed perfectly content to sit back and let the music of the Great Migration, of a culture lost to history long ago, wash over them. And as each panelist shared two songs, all played in their entirety, we felt a resonant connection to the roots of modern American culture.
I should probably say something about Paramount Records itself. Originally a furniture manufacturing company, Paramount Records started selling records during the First World War, just as the Great Migration was beginning. Paramount recorded the sounds of this landmark cultural event, the bluesmen coming out of the South with only their voices and guitars. Paramount attracted a dizzying array of musicians to their label, names that still ring with reverence today — Charley Patton, Skip James, Geeshie Wiley. All Paramount intended to do, though, was sell records. “They were capturing American culture for the sake of a dollar,” said White. But the archive they left us, which record labels are rediscovering today, forms the foundations of American music.
If one phenomenon seemed particularly evident at Battell Chapel, it was surely the blues’ persistence across time. Jack White is a 21st-century musician. Adia Victoria is the same, though her work hearkens back to the Delta style of the 1920s. Greil Marcus came of age in the glory years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. And bringing them all together was the music of a century past. “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records,” a quasi-religious pageant in honor of our cultural ancestors, highlighted the enduring unity of the blues. The incredible emotional power of the songs, though the recordings are gravelly and muddled, still echoes through the ages.
White chose the last song of the night, a 1929 Charley Patton track called “A Spoonful Blues.” Thirty years later, Howlin’ Wolf reworked the song into “Spoonful,” and Eric Clapton’s Cream made a hard-blues version in 1966. That sequence alone demonstrates the emergence of rock and roll.
When White mentioned the song, a solitary member of the audience applauded. “A Spoonful Blues” was certainly not the most emotional song of the night, nor was it best — those titles belong to Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues,” presented by Marcus. Patton’s song is bare, with little melody to speak of. He repeats a catchy guitar riff and sings whatever he fancies over it. But still, despite its simplicity the song persisted, through unthinkable upheavals in the American cultural landscape, through a transatlantic migration, through the inexorable evolution of popular music into previously unknown domains. And still it persists, quietly monumental in its immortality.
It is perhaps fitting that the event coincided with the release of Bob Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series Volume 11,” 139 tracks Dylan cut with The Band throughout the late 1960s. These songs feel like a descent into the American heart, the sonic expression of our cultural heritage. I listened to the songs before the talk and started to wonder where Dylan came up with it all. But after hearing White and Marcus speak, I realized that Dylan was just plucking songs from the vast American cultural subconscious, of which the Paramount Records archive forms such a central component. Dylan simply translated the early blues and combined it with elements of Woody Guthrie’s folk, creating tracks that ring with the same universal sadness and hope and desperation as those of the Delta bluesmen 40 years before him. We cannot escape those cultural antecedents, only emulate them. But because they lie deep in our cultural subconscious, we never quite remember them — until we hear Charley Patton’s music, sounding so intimately familiar though we’ve never before experienced it. Understanding this American cultural subconscious is critical to understanding rock and roll, and indeed all American music, which all ultimately emanates from the blues of the Great Migration.
We cannot ignore the blues. It will never die, and this is all for the better. Few forms of music have the emotional capacity and resonant immortality of the blues and its descendants. I doubt that many of the attendees of “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records” had a significant background in the blues — Jack White was surely the greater attraction. But Jack White acted as cultural historian and guardian of the past, not as a rock star. He and the other panelists delivered an indelible lesson in the raw power of American vernacular music, revisiting a forgotten era of our culture. I left with a newfound appreciation for the American roots and an ardent desire to explore them further. I hope that we all left with that feeling — a reminder of where we have come from and where we have gone. And the unavoidable question hangs over all, as it typically does when we look so far back: Where are we going?