Much to their excitement, Yale students were schooled by a new professor this week. The Ivy League university welcomed revered rocker Jack White to their campus on Tuesday night. White spoke alongside other industry figures and cultural scholars in a panel for the African-American Studies department, regarding the historical impact of Paramount Records.
Other speakers to contribute included Revenant Records owner Dean Blackwood, artist Adia Victoria, and authors Greil Marcus and Scott Blackwood. Opening remarks from African-American Studies and Theater Studies professor, Daphne Brooks, emphasized how Paramount Records gave a voice to African-American musicians who, otherwise, may never have been heard.
The discussion centered on the label’s support and consequent popularization of blues and jazz artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Charley Patton were highlighted by the speakers as some of the notable musicians who shaped the musical landscape with Paramount at their side.
The speakers also illuminated Paramount’s strategic capitalization on what is often referred to as the “race record” industry. Blackwood described the label’s origins; a manufacturer of speaker cabinets that only began producing records in an attempt to boost cabinet sales. Since the company was struggling and could not afford to sign any major artists, they were willing to record any musician that might generate revenue. Their desperation engendered a lucrative scheme, as the company began employing minority artists and selling the music right back to the minority communities.
White has shown us in the past that he is well versed on this aspect of history. In addition, a 2013 release from his label, Third Man Records, was a core topic during the symposium. The album, entitled The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, is a critically-acclaimed collection of vintage Paramount recordings that already has a Volume 2 nipping at its heels. The second set is slated for release on November 18th, 2014.
“What’s beautiful about Paramount is … the accidental capturing of American culture for the sake of a dollar,” White opined to the roomful of students. To illustrate his points, he had the audience listen to two classic tracks from 1929, including Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie” (not to be confused with Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”), and Patton’s “Spoonful Blues.” White explained that the latter was chosen for its emotional intensity, as well as its blend of secular and religious elements. Marcus also selected songs for contemplation, playing recordings of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues” and Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues.”