Mills Music Library made an appearance in a recent New York Times article, “A Menagerie of Music Lives in a Box,” about the release of a Paramount Records boxed set, featuring more than 800 newly remastered digital tracks, representing 172 artists; more than 200 fully-restored original 1920s ads and images; 6 high quality vinyl LPs; a 250 page deluxe large-format art book; a 350 page encyclopedia-style field guide containing artist portraits and a full Paramount discography; and a first-of-its kind music and image player app that allows user management of all tracks and ads, that is housed on a custom designed USB drive.
Paramount Records, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, who crafted phonographs that were in need of records, “took a scattershot approach to its business, recording more than 10,000 tracks of blues, gospel, hot jazz, treacly pop, and hillbilly and ethnic music before going bust during the Depression,” according to the New York Times. This scattershot method of recording, plus the employment of Mayo Williams, the first African-American record producer, gave us a massive collection of music that may not otherwise have been recorded, including “race records” (a pre-World War II term to describe music marketed to blacks).
The boxed set is co-produced by Jack White’s Third Man Records and Revenant Records. Volume 1 features music from the founding year 1917 to 1927; Volume 2 will include world-renowned blues recordings made in Grafton, Wisconsin, and extends to the end of Paramount. Volume 2 is likely to be released in 2014.
Dean Blackwood, of Revenant Records, first contacted Mills to request scans from the rare photocopy of Max Vreede’s typescript collection of discographies, which includes most of the series issued on the Paramount, Puritan, Broadway, and Famous labels. Mills has many of these resources in its Wisconsin Music Archive. Once learning about the project, Tom Caw, Music Public Services Librarian, and Matt Appleby, Technical Services Librarian, made sure that Blackwood was in touch with Alex van der Tuuk, who has been a long-time researcher in the Mills Library and published a book in 2003 titled Paramount’s Rise and Fall: The Roots and History of Paramount Records. Appleby told me, “Alex is the lynchpin of the project and the historian of the company.” Van der Tuuk, who lives in the Netherlands, became the researcher director and a co-producer of the boxed set.
Both Caw and Appleby assisted with the project. Appleby scanned many 78 records for the research, in order to confirm or deny names, dates, spellings, and so on. Appleby also supplied audio samples digitized from the Mills collection; however, for this volume, more pristine recordings that would survive the digital transfer were found at other repositories. The labels and audio samples were very helpful reference and information sources for the project. Additionally, according to Jeanette Casey, Head of Mills, there are likely to be some tracks from the Mills collection on volume 2. Appleby noted that Mills has test pressings and alternative takes from artists like Jack Penewell, which are one of a kind.
Caw indexed the 250 page hardcover art book that is included with the boxed set. “Indexing was definitely a time-consuming process,” Caw said. He also noted that he was a copy editor and proofreader years before he became a librarian, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to be involved with the project this way.
Former Mills librarian Steve Sundell was largely responsible for the Paramount collection that Mills holds today. He scoured record stores and garage sales looking for rare Paramount 78s. Eventually, once they heard of the growing collection here, more donors offered their Paramount records to the library. According to van der Tuuk, employees were offered records from storage instead of pay when the record company closed down in 1933. Van der Tuuk told the New York Times, “A lot of people took metal master recordings and the 78s home, where they were sometimes used for target practice or even to cover up holes in the wall. Other employees were angry and went upstairs and sailed them right off the roof into the Milwaukee River.”
The Mills Music Library is a treasure trove of music history. This project, with which Caw and Appleby were happy to assist, highlights one of the unique collections of the library.
Want more information?
- The full New York Times article
- Mills Music Library website
- Paramount Records Discography from Mills Library on UWDCC
- This blog post from NPR music news is about lost sounds, Paramount, and why archives matter: Holding Music History In Your Hands