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LIVE from the NYPL Blog , Popular Music
Review of "Exploring The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records" LIVE at NYPL
The line formed early outside of Edna Barnes Salomon Reading Room as this particular event in the Live from the NYPL series was the hottest ticket in town on a cold fall night. Who would have thought that a round table discussion regarding the collapse of quirky record company that shuttered its doors over 80 years ago would draw a crowd of everyone from scores of fancily clad women to NYC guitar slinger (and author) Lenny Kaye? It may have something to do with the speakers on this night, as Jack White was in town to discuss this topic with Dean and Scott Blackwood. The trio were critical in Third Man Records releasing of The Wonder Cabinet, which houses The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records Vol 1 1917-1927.
Before the event got underway a collection of Paramount Records were put on view as a special exhibition from The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, curated specifically for this event. During the event it was commented that this was an amazing collection of high quality Paramount Records in fantastic condition. White mentioned that the company was known for making very poor quality records with 20% shellac when they should have used 30% and now when the records are found they are usually gray, not shiny black like this collection.
Another pre-show highlight was a slideshow containing tons of eccentric advertisments that were used to sell these "Race Records" for Paramount. There were songs with fantastic titles for sale like "How Can I Miss You When I Got Dead Aim" by Ida Cox and "Black Bottom Hop" by Trixie Smith. After a light hearted intro from LIVE from the NYPL's host Paul Holdengräber, Jack White founder of Third Man Records and Dean Blackwood founder of Revenant Records had a discussion to provide some context that was moderated and expertly accentuated by Princeton Professor Daphne A. Brooks.
The trio talked about how the company captured "accidently beauty" and caught history on cheap records without really knowing what the hell they were doing. Blackwood focused mostly on the history, Brooks brought in the cultural touchstones and White added thoughts on the songs but that was what everyone was here for, the music. Songs were played, listened to, then cheered for by all. It was a bit odd watching people listen to music until you just let the old songs wash over you and when they were they completed insight was given.
The first song set the tone with a unique version of Jelly Roll Morton's "Mr. Jelly Lord" that changed tempos and ran wildly around the room. White mentioned that this track "screams freedom to me" and an interesting discussuion developed comparing black culture on film (stifled) to black culture on record (freer).
Other tracks like Ethel Waters "Ain't Gonna Marry (Ain't Goona Settle Down)" continued the freedom discussion, White mentioned how Loretta Lynn's "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'" was a "bold statement and this Ethel Waters song was 40 years earlier!"
A personal highlight was the trio discussing the highs and lows of the gospel tracks Paramount recorded and released especially the haunting "I Want Jesus To Talk To Me" by Homer Quincy Smith. With it's brimstone fueled pump organ the track was eerie seeming to conjur both Heaven and Hell in its short run time. You can listen to the track here.
After this the two authors Scott Blackwood and Greil Marcus joined the conversation for what was billed as a "throwdown" but was more of a mutual admiration affair as each picked their favorite songs from the collection. One of the interesting things is the incredibly varying quality from song to song, Marcus mentioned these records were "literally made of dirt" so the fact that they exist at all is a wonder. Scott went first and selected Papa Charlie Johnson's "Coffee Pot Blues" which was an upbeat murder ballad that people danced too. Brooks contributed a deep cut (even for this crowd) from Ethel Waters titled "Sunshine Of Your Smile" which shows off operatic singing from the blues legend.
Marcus told a fascinating story about a song most know but played a version few have ever heard, "Original Stack-A-Lee Blues" by Long Cleeve Reed and Little Harvey Hull, this was an excellent oral history from the music scribe and a pretty damn cool version of the tune with some fine guitar work. Dean picked my personal favorite of the bunch with Jimmy O'Bryant's take on "My Man Rocks Me", a rollicking jazz number that is scrambling and stomping with a bizarre tone, free form jazz in creative early stages. White ended the night with Sweet Papa Stovepipes "Mama's Angel Child" which he said was the reason he had to get behind this release as the first time White heard this track it penetrated him deeply and he hopes others will have the same reaction with these songs. You can listen to the track here.
The night had a decidedly music nerd vibe to it and that was fantastic, there is love for these old tunes for they are as much history as music at this point, telling stories that would have otherwise drifted off to nothing. Attendees received a special 78 from Paramount Records as they exited but the real gift was listening to fantastic pieces of Americana with such loving, thoughtful appreciators helping add metadata along the journey. Stream the whole talk below: