Elizabeth G Fagan’s experience as a professional writer spans more than 30 years. See more essays
The founders of Paramount Records knew nothing about the music business. Launched in 1917, the label was simply a subsidiary of Wisconsin Chair Company (WCC) based in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Companies that made early record-playing cabinets (non-electric, wind-up gargantuans) used recorded music to drive sales. Paramount’s cheaply made records were given away or sold with WCC’s latest hope for profitability: expensive phonograph cabinets. In 1920, a new talent emerged, and a new art form came to the recording business. Mamie Smith, an African-American woman, sang “Crazy Blues” into the souls of millions as, across the country, mainstream America heard Blues for the first time.
Geography came into play when Paramount decided to cash in on the Blues craze. By the early 20th century, rail lines criss-crossed the United States. For the first time, American businesses could quickly and reliably transport goods across land to eager markets. From Port Washington, Wisconsin, railroads took WCC phonograph cabinets directly south to Jackson, Mississippi, one of the company’s most robust markets. They hired a black entrepreneur from Chicago, J. Mayo Williams, to go to Jackson to sign talent for the burgeoning “race record” market.
“By 1923, Paramount, like a holy fool, was poised for a run of success despite (or perhaps because of) its early, naive fumblings.”1
Chunks of the brick-and-mortar foundation of the former Paramount Records recording studio still exist along Cedar Creek in Grafton, Wisconsin. The Mississippi Blues Trail marker at the site reads: “Many of the most important recordings in blues history were made at the studio of Paramount Records, located here on the grounds of the Wisconsin Chair Company factory. Between 1929 and 1932 Mississippi-born blues pioneers including Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, Son House, the Mississippi Sheiks, Willie Brown and Henry Townsend traveled north to record here.”
The marker fails to mention Ma Rainey, and African-American woman who recorded more than 100 songs for Paramount and outsold all of its dozens of white artists, comparative commercial flops. In fact, the sales of Ma Rainey’s records, the hit “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” among them, were second in the label’s history to only one other artist, a black bluesman from Texas known as Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Over a hundred years later, a white female voice points out that since the turn of the 20th century, America’s popular music has originated with African-Americans. Women remain the most overlooked artists.
About the Author
Elizabeth G Fagan is a writer and artist who calls her place in the world Lake Michigan’s Left Coast.
Fagan attended The Hammonasset School, a private arts high school in Connecticut, where she began writing and taking photographs. She earned a BA in English at Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) and the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). She has an MA in Linguistics with a specialization in teaching English as a second language (ESL) from UIC. Fagan later gained an associate degree in Web Development from DePaul University in Chicago.
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