For the better part of the year, there'd been whispers that Revenant Records, the superlative boutique label founded by the late John Fahey and former Nashville attorney Dean Blackwood, was working on a collection devoted to Paramount Records. The record-label subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, home to artists such as Ma Rainey, Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (featuring Louis Armstrong), Paramount recorded blues, jazz and gospel greats along with a number of long-forgotten regional and novelty artists starting in 1917, until it shuttered during the Great Depression.
Previously, Revenant issued stellar artisanal packages devoted to Captain Beefheart, Charley Patton and Albert Ayler — the last item consisting of a carved plastic "spirit box" filled with nine CDs, reproduced memorabilia, even a pressed forget-me-not. So meeting that standard seemed like a tall order — until visitors stepped inside the Third Man offices, outfitted with staffers in vintage garb and period oddities such as a working camera obscura.
The occasion is The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1932), the first half of a staggering label retrospective that's frankly one of the damnedest musical objets d'art I've ever seen. A fusion of archaic recordings, hand-hewn craft and spanking new digital technology — embodied by a mock-up of a metal Victrola needle that houses a flash drive and endlessly searchable discography database — it offers some 800 remastered digital tracks, a 250-page book of label reprints, a 360-page "field guide" to the songs and artists and six vinyl LPs emblazoned with hand-engraved center labels. If those contents were simply dumped in a Hefty bag and handed over to the consumer, they'd still be a treasure.
But the box, including the graphic elements designed by local Isle of Printing printmaster Bryce McCloud — how to describe this thing? First, in honor of Paramount's furniture-company origins, it comes housed in a polished wooden box shaped like a Victrola case. According to Third Man operative Ben Swank, the attention to detail was so thorough that Third Man founder Jack White (a man who knows his way around furniture and upholstery) specified the use of quarter sawn oak as well as the sage velvet inner lining. Second, McCloud's own meticulous detailing extends to a book cover made of laser-etched birch. Birch. Third, each component fits like a puzzle piece into its own neatly appointed slot, in tribute to the personal museums known as wunderkammern ("cabinets of wonder") popular in 16th century Europe.
Visiting writers in town for the Americana Music Festival geeked out unabashedly over the gorgeous packaging, the digital whizbangery and the vibrant, timeless music issuing a joyous clatter over the speakers. The official release date is Nov. 19, and to answer the question on everyone's mind: It's set to retail at Third Man for $400 — although we desperately wanted to believe White when he leaned over to Blackwood at the announcement party, gestured to the box and said, in his best Ronco pitchman voice, "This is retailing for $19.95, right? That's what I'm telling everyone."
Press release below.
THIRD MAN + REVENANT PARTNER TO RELEASE HISTORIC TWO-VOLUME WONDER-CABINET 'THE RISE & FALL OF PARAMOUNT RECORDS 1917-1932'; FIRST VOLUME RELEASED NOVEMBER 19
How did a Wisconsin chair company, producing records on the cheap and run by men with little knowledge of their audience or the music business, build one of the greatest musical rosters ever assembled under one roof? The answer lies in 'The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records 1917-1932,' an epic, two-volume omnibus of art, words and music housed in a limited-edition, hand-sculpted cabinet-of-wonder, to be jointly released by Jack White's Third Man Records and John Fahey's Revenant Records.
'Volume One,' which covers the label's improbable rise from 1917-1927, will be released exclusively through Third Man on October 29, and worldwide on November 19. The project is co-produced by leading Paramount authority Alex van der Tuuk, and 'Volume 2' will be released in November 2014.
Paramount Records was founded on a modest proposition: produce records as cheaply as possible, recording whatever talent was available. Over its lifetime, the label would become a "race records" powerhouse, its sound and fortunes directly linked to the Great Migration.
By the time Paramount ceased operations in 1932, it had compiled a dizzying array of performers still unrivaled to this day, spanning early jazz titans (Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller), blues masters (Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House, Skip James), American divas (Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters), gospel (Norfolk Jubilee Quartette), vaudeville (Papa Charlie Jackson), and the indefinable "other" (Geeshie Wiley, Elvis Thomas). Paramount would also directly influence the style of Robert Crumb and countless other 20th century artists and illustrators, through a series of hand-drawn ads promoting its releases in the pages of the Chicago Defender.
The 'Rise and Fall' wonder-cabinet gives equal status to page-turning narrative and new scholarship; original and newly created graphic art; industrial design; and compelling analog and digital music experiences. 'Volume One' contains the following:
* 800 newly-remastered digital tracks, representing 172 artists
* 200+ fully-restored original 1920s ads and images
* 6x 180g vinyl LPs pressed on burled chestnut colored vinyl w/ hand-engraved, blind-embossed gold-leaf labels, housed in a laser-etched white birch LP folio
* 250 page deluxe large-format clothbound hardcover art book
* 360 page encyclopedia-style softcover field guide containing artist portraits and full Paramount discography
* Handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with lush sage velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware
* First-of-its-kind music and image player app, allowing user mgmt of all tracks and ads, housed on custom-designed USB drive