How A Wisconsin Furniture Company Shined A Fortuitous Spotlight On Blues Greats

Nov 4, 2014

Charley Patton’s music set the template for all the Delta blues players who would come after him. Take a listen to “High Water Everywhere,” which Patton recorded in 1929.

But Patton’s records weren’t made in the South; they were recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin by Paramount Records, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company. Now it seems pretty unlikely, not to mention bizarre, that this seminal blues artist from Mississippi would be recorded in a freezing shack attached to a Wisconsin furniture company, but that’s what happened.

The Wisconsin Chair Company also made cabinets for record players, and they thought by making their own records, it would help them sell more cabinets. So they sent scouts down into the South to find musicians who would work cheap. Capitalism at its finest.

And Paramount had no aesthetic sense at all; they recorded anything and everything regardless of genre. Here’s “Knocking Down Casey Jones” from country artist Wilmer Watts and the Lonely Eagles from 1929.

And you know, in a weird way, it’s fortunate that Paramount Records really didn’t know what they were doing. Sure, they accidentally recorded a lot of the greats like Blind Blake, Patton, Tommy Johnson and Son House, but along the way they also recorded wonderful blues by people who didn’t quite make that historical cut. These are people like Elzadie Robinson. Here she is with the “Tick Tock Blues” from 1927.

Elzadie Robinson never made it big as a Paramount artist, but Paramount’s place in American music history comes from their recordings of the earliest and most influential blues artists, people like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake. This is Blind Blake with “Diddie Wah Diddie” from 1929.

Due in part to the Great Depression, Paramount stopped recording in 1932 and closed in 1935. The majority of the metal masters of all those historic recordings were sold for scrap metal.

Later this month, Third Man Records and Revenant Records will release Volume Two of their boxed set series called “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1928-1932” featuring more than 800 recordings.