Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory

That’s a long and weird title, and the answer is: 78 rpm records. Then there’s a rather involved story to connect all the pieces. Music critic and reporter Amanda Petrusich explains what a chair factory has to do with blues records.  

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

So the Wisconsin Chair Company, based in the Grafton-Port Washington area of Wisconsin, started the Paramount label. And they accidentally ended up recording whom I believe to be some of the most incredible performers in American musical history. Paramount started a “race record” series in the late 1920s after a few other labels had success doing that model, by which African American artists recorded music for African American audiences. Through a complex series of talent scouts, they would bring artists mostly from the Southeast up to Wisconsin to record, which in and of itself was just insane and miraculous. These are Mississippi bluesmen, being brought to this white rural town in Wisconsin, and you can’t imagine how foreign it must have been to them to see that landscape. Sometimes the performers would record for Paramount in Chicago, but later in Paramount’s history, the company built a studio right in Grafton, and it was a notoriously bad studio. It had shoddy, handmade equipment, and then the records that Paramount was pressing were really cheap. It was a very bad mixture of shellac, and Paramount records are infamous for having a lot of surface noise.

But as I said, they captured some of the best performers in American history, folks like Skip James, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Geeshie Wiley—all these really incredible singers. At the time, Paramount didn’t know what it was doing. It hasn’t been until now that people are like, “Oh my God, this label rewrote American history.” I don’t think Paramount was remotely cognizant of the significance of the work that was being recorded in their studio. They were just trying to land on a hit. And they had some success with Blind Lemon Jefferson. They had a little bit of success with Charley Patton, but I think for the most part, it’s obvious these performers didn’t sell super well because not a lot of their 78s have survived.

A few of those records are still out there, and collectors are hot to find them. Read more about the blues artists of the 1920s and ’30s, and the furniture company that recorded them for posterity, at Collectors Weekly. There are a couple of music tracks to play while you read.

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