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Music Review: 'Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records Volume 2'

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Music Review: 'Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records Volume 2'

Music Reviews

Music Review: 'Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records Volume 2'

Music Review: 'Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records Volume 2'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/388796114/388796115" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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For a decade, Paramount Records was one the most influential labels in the country. Now, a two box set collection tracks its rise and fall in the early 20th century.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This music is part of the legacy of Paramount Records. The label was an offshoot of the Wisconsin Chair Company created in 1917 to help sell the phonographs the furniture company built. As one music expert put it, it was like Apple creating iTunes in order to sell iPods. Paramount was incredibly influential in its 15-year run. And now its classic recordings are available in a pair of limited edition box sets called "The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records." Meredith Ochs has been delving into that history.

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: In the late 1920s, Paramount Records was struggling. As the Great Depression set in, their cash flow dried up. New technology began to make their scratchy-sounding, cheaply-made records less desirable. And the public's taste in music was evolving. Paramount scrambled to keep up, their talent scouts searching the American South and West for the next big thing. But even as it was slowly failing, the label discovered some of the most influential figures in American music, like Delta bluesman Charley Patton. A top seller for Paramount, Patton was famous for flashy moves like playing guitar behind his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PONY BLUES")

CHARLEY PATTON: (Singing) Tell you when I get out, yeah, I don't want to marry - just want to be your man.

OCHS: Paramount folded in 1933, shutting down so abruptly that employees were offered master recordings in lieu of payment - or so the story goes. The workers supposedly responded by tossing these priceless artifacts into the Milwaukee River. But every now and then, a lost treasure resurfaces.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN TO SUN")

BLIND BLAKE: (Singing) A man can worry from sun to sun.

OCHS: Like this 1931 Blind Blake recording, found just eight years ago at a mobile home park in North Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUN TO SUN")

BLIND BLAKE: (Singing) But a woman's worries have just begun.

OCHS: After Paramount shut down, some of its artists quit music for decades. Virginia banjo virtuoso Dock Boggs was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALSEHEARTED LOVER'S BLUES")

DOCK BOGGS: (Singing) I'm sure my falsehearted lover will drive me to my lonesome grave.

OCHS: With alternate tunings and finger-pick melodies, his style was innovative and haunting. But he had to earn a living. So he went back to what he knew, working as a coal miner for many years, before he was rediscovered during the 1960s folk revival.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FALSEHEARTED LOVER'S BLUES")

BOGGS: (Singing) From your heartstrings weave silk garters. Build their dog house on your grave.

OCHS: This second volume of the Paramount Records story is a painstakingly-assembled scholarly project that never loses its magic in the details. The sheer number of songs is remarkable - 800 of them, by 175 artists, ghostly voices that tell the stories of sharecroppers, women who hadn't yet won the right to vote when the label was founded and even bootleggers. This collection effectively shows how these artists laid the groundwork for so much contemporary roots and rock music. And the history of Paramount itself is just as fascinating, a tale of race, region, economics and our evolving culture in the early 20th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TERRIBLE MURDER BLUES")

BERTHA HENDERSON: (Singing) I can't take it no more.

SIEGEL: Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ at SiriusXM Radio. She reviewed the double box set "The Rise And Fall Of Paramount Records."

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