"It's not about making money on this one," Jack White says, laughing but proud, of his most ambitious project to date as a label boss: The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917-1927). Here's why: The anthology comes in a period-perfect oak cabinet resembling that of a portable Victrola and includes two, large boutique-quality books packed with annotation and original memorabilia; a birch-wood folio with six colored-vinyl LPs featuring almost 100 classic Paramount releases; and, in a felt-lined pocket at the bottom of the box, a USB jammed with 800 tracks from Paramount's first ten years.
And that music is essential American history. Established by a Wisconsin chair manufacturer, Paramount issued thousands of 78-RPM sides by pioneers and stars of early-20th century blues, jazz and country, including Blind Blake, Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, the virtuoso fiddler Osey Helton and, as a sideman, the young Louis Armstrong. "It's a remarkable pantheon of greats," says Dean Blackwood, co-founder with the late guitarist John Fahey of the Revenant label, which is co-releasing the set with White's Third Man Records. "It was an absurd embarrassment of riches, especially for a company that really wanted to sell expensive bits of furniture."
The first volume of this contemporary telling of the Paramount story costs $400 and is available in a limited edition of 5000 copies. (It can be ordered from Third Man starting on October 29th and will be available worldwide on November 19th. Volume Two will come in 2014.) White and Blackwood admit they have to sell as many as 4000 sets of Volume One just to break even on the production costs. "But everything we do, it's never to make a dollar," White says of Third Man, which has recently released vinyl compilations of Blind Willie McTell and the Mississippi Shieks and started a reissue line of seminal Sun Records 45s. "It's always to make something exist. And we end up paying the bills that way, because other people want to experience those things too."
The following excerpt is from an interview with White about the Paramount project and delves into his passion for the company's peculiar history – White had his own furniture restoration firm before starting his band, the White Stripes. "We were scared from the get-go," White confessed when asked if Rise and Fall's price tag would be prohibitive to some, even intensely curious folks. "But somebody sent me that recent Beatles box set of their vinyl albums, and that was $350. We were like, 'Fuck it. Those are just records. Think of what we're trying to do.'"
This is not a boxed set. It's furniture.
Little Jack Lawrence from Dead Weather and the Raconteurs had a portable Victrola at his house. I wanted to make the box like that, with quarter-sawn oak, because that's what that furniture company was using for their cabinets. And the USB is designed and antique-crafted to resemble the diaphragm of an old portable phonograph.
You were designing the set based on something no one had manufactured in almost an entire century.
You get involved in every component. You just can't do it over the phone: "We want this to be black." They'd send it back, and it would look like something you bought at Home Depot. When it comes to this, God is in the details. You can't just draw it on a napkin and walk away. It's not about perfection or control. It's about searching for beauty – until you get something beautiful.
We would have these happy accidents. The laser-etched birch covers [for the vinyl-LP folio] were done by an artist in Nashville. He has a shop across the street from Third Man. He ended up doing our deluxe edition of the Great Gatsby soundtrack.
Did you consider trying to do the rise and fall of Paramount as one set? This is only the first ten years, and Charley Patton, arguably the label's greatest bluesman, hasn't shown up yet.
If you wanted to do the complete Paramount, it would probably take four of these things. That's what's so beautiful about them – they didn't give a damn. Their idea was volume, quantity over quality. They only used 20 percent shellac in their records, when they should have used 30. They were just whipping them out, hurrying up to get to the next artist, see what would sell 20 copies, then move to the next thing – with the end goal of selling furniture. But they captured a snapshot of American culture that would end up influencing the planet for the next 100 years.
Paramount was also documenting the music of America's black and white underclasses – jazz bands, blues singers, country fiddlers and novelty acts.
With all of the racism of that time period, this was an equal playing ground for everybody. If you had a story to tell, they didn't care. You could be poor, in a minority, and tell your story on a record – that you wrote. And it would be sold to people? Think about how unbelievable that was.
What Paramount records or artists were important to you as a young musician, on your way to and in the White Stripes?
I had to be careful of not being too much a collector of records. I had to keep one foot in that water, one foot out. It's dangerous for me, as a creative person, as a songwriter. When I came up, a lot of people who worked in record stores were in bands, and they couldn't seem to write a song that wasn't a reference point to something else. I tried to push myself to do something else, that was coming from inside my own brain. Of course, it will sound like something. But I didn't want to write a song like Big Bill Broonzy. I wanted to write a song that sounds like I wrote it.
Yet at Town Hall in September, at the concert for the Coen Brothers film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," you covered a Paramount recording, "Mama's Angel Son" by Sweet Papa Stovepipe.
That's the song that got me involved in this project. It encompassed everything that is beautiful about Paramount Records. He only made one record. Who is this guy? He was there for ten minutes. They put it out, and moved on to the next person. Dean Blackwood [of Revenant] sent it over to me. We were talking about the possibilites of this set. And that was the first song that caught me. I thought, "I have to play this song." Then, "We have to do this box set."
The zenith of Paramount – recording Charley Patton – is going to be explored in the second volume. They recorded the grandfather of the blues, of modern music. He didn't seem like a real person. He seemed like he wasn't from earth. Charley Patton's presence led us to this idea. But as we got into more obscure songs, we realized this is just too good a story. You have so many pieces of America involved in this one thing: a company that's going out of business, looking to stay afloat, so they decide to go into the record business.
Basically the reverse of what's happening in the record industry now.
Exactly! [Laughs] The whole story of American culture – you can discover it in this one set. That's what's appealing to me. It's every idea you can imagine – a forgotten artist no one cares about, mixed with a failing business, then the Great Depression, the materials people used to build things. Paramount was struggling to break even, cranking out tons of product.
That sounds familiar.
We're doing the same thing at Third Man. But I realized, beautiful is not a desperate scenario. They thought it was, where they could close shop at any day. You get to learn from their experience, but look at it from a positive viewpoint – which they wouldn't have been able to do. I doubt they cared that they were documenting anything about culture at all.