Is Wisconsin the furthest state from the Mississippi Delta? Culturally, perhaps. Yet the land of butter burgers and cheese curds played a big role in preserving the blues. While 78 rpm records offer an aural time tunnel to the 1920s and ’30s Deep South, many were recorded in the Dairy State, at Paramount Records, in the town of Grafton, Wis. A short-lived venture of the Wisconsin Chair Company, Paramount only lasted some 15 years. But in that decade and a half they unwittingly preserved a lovely segment of American music history.
Grafton was my first post-vaccination road trip. As an early blues fan, I planned to visit the town, long before the pandemic threw up roadblocks. Packed with antibodies, a quick afternoon trip across the border seemed in order. I asked my friend Seth along. A CPS teacher, Seth’s knowledge of more modern blues, R&B, and other styles is prodigious. Nevertheless, he wasn’t as up on pre-WWII blues or Grafton’s role in the same, which piqued his curiosity. Our trip’s soundtrack was exquisitely blue. I started simply, playing Blind Blake’s “Police Dog Blues” as we drove up I-94.
I wish we’d chosen a better day. On May 23, we left a sweltering Chicago to drive over the Illinois/Wisconsin border and through Milwaukee. Temperatures dipped and the rain couldn’t make up its mind to spatter, mist, or splash. I’ve never seen Milwaukee in fair weather, though our urban neighbor to the north looks good in grey. I often think of Milwaukee as a secret annex to Chicago. Both towns have that overweening Midwest burliness, though Milwaukee retains more old world savor than Chicago, the latter determined to shuck its history and dress in steel and glass drag. But we were only passing through, on our way to Milwaukee’s north end, like many who’d come before.
Rainy days are also bad for visiting graveyards. Cinematic, yes, but sloppy. Our first stop was Glen Oaks Cemetery in Glendale, Wis. I couldn’t find a founding date, but it’s clearly been around for a while, catering to every ethnicity. The stones grow older the further back you go. Wet grass and hidden puddles sloshed beneath our feet, soaking our shoes and cuffs. Unpleasant, but tribute had to be paid.
We stopped by Glen Oaks to visit ragtime blues guitarist Blind Blake’s grave. My first blues album was Document’s Ragtime Blues Guitar (1927–1930) anthology, featuring obscure virtuosos such as Bayless Rose, Willie Walker, and Mr. Blake himself. The first track is his first take of “Dry Bone Shuffle”. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the first time I heard it, the clickety-clack syncopation and Blake’s sharp fingerpicking struck and stuck with me. Orderly, yet breakneck. Old-fashioned, yet accomplished enough to be taken seriously.
Born Arthur Blake, little is known about the man. Mysterious, though not in the silly, supernatural way attached to his contemporary Robert Johnson. Blake is more mysterious, actually. Whereas Johnson’s past was presented in two recent books, much of Blake’s life remains unknown. Bluesmen who knew him and lived to enjoy the mid-20th century American folk revival could share little about his life, beyond vouching for his precision and speed. As a performer, he was polished and prolific, recording some 80 songs onto 78s. The versatile Blake performed solos and duets, backed performers like Ma Rainey and Ida Cox, and participated in ensemble recordings. He recorded at studios in Richmond, Ind.; Chicago; and finally nearby Grafton, Wis., the home of his label.
For years, and based on Paramount promo materials, it was assumed Blake was from Jacksonville, Fla. Others claimed to hear the dialect of the Sea Islands off South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—where the Geechee people live—in his patter and playing. The former was in error while the latter was wishful thinking and selective listening. As it turned out, and as discovered by researcher, Grafton resident, and blues historian Angie Mack Reilly, Blake was a Virginian, born in Newport News, Va., in 1896—though he did have family in Georgia.
When you listen to his recordings, Blake slips easily between ragtime, jazz, and pop, though the blues remains his bedrock, echoing both the Mississippi Delta and Piedmont styles. If you think all blues are about cheating women, bad liquor, jail time, and hard luck, well, Blake played and sang about all four, but he covered several other topics and genres besides. Despite the poor quality of the recordings, his output is accessible, peppy, and rich in rhythm and tone. Yet, despite his skill, output, and contemporaries’s accolades, Blake isn’t much remembered or considered as influential on modern music as performers like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, and others. The proto-rock ’n roll duet “Hastings Street” between Blake and Charlie Spand, however, begs to differ.
Rumors of Blake’s death were often exaggerated, with claims he’d been hit by a street car, was mugged and murdered, or had died drunk in a Chicago blizzard. The truth, as turned up by Alex van der Tuuk, author of the exhaustive Paramount’s Rise and Fall: A History of the Wisconsin Chair Company and Its Recording Activities, and Ms. Reilly, was tragic but prosaic. After six years of success as a recording artist, Blake moved to Glendale, Wis., a suburb north of Milwaukee, in the early 1930s with his wife Beatrice McGee (the itinerant Blake lived in Virginia, Florida, Detroit, and even Chicago, where he kept an apartment at 31st and Cottage Grove). When his record label, like many during the Depression, shuttered in 1935, it became harder to find gigs. A big drinker, Blake developed pulmonary tuberculosis and died at 38.
Glen Oaks Cemetery suffered similar historic ignominy. A March 5, 2000, article in the Los Angeles Times reports that Glen Oaks, then named Evergreen Cemetery, was among several Wisconsin necropolises facing complaints from customers and the entombed’s heirs
“From 1994 to last summer, the state Department of Regulation and Licensing received 152 complaints regarding cemetery or burial-related businesses, ranging from accusations of high-pressure sales talk and sunken graves to people who couldn’t find family members’ graves.”
It remains a story familiar to many African-American graveyards across the country, the previous owner accused of poor upkeep and performing illegal burials. In 2002, the place was sold and renamed Glen Oaks. Efforts were made to fix up the place and locate lost souls. And that may well be, but Glen Oaks, while clearly in transition, still feels a bit shambolic toward the far edges where Blake is buried. We found several broken and misplaced stones, some going back decades.
Blake, however, has been looked after more recently, as one of several dozen blues performers supplied with grave markers by certain fans over the past few decades. While not easy to find, find it we did, near a thatch of bushes. The rain and grey skies made photography difficult. Luckily, the pandemic provided, and I had an extra cloth face mask to wipe down the stone and reveal the neat engraving reproducing the single photo of Blake in existence. Even in that he out-mysteries Robert Johnson, with Johnson’s two (perhaps three) confirmed photos.
We paid our respects and wandered about a little, but there wasn’t much more to see. Plus, it was getting wetter and later, and we had to reach Grafton.
Originally a lumber town founded by German and Irish immigrants, the Milwaukee River later provided 19th-century Grafton with power for its grain and wool mills. In 1889, the Wisconsin Chair Company set up shop in neighboring Port Washington, Wis., beside Lake Michigan, manufacturing all manner of furnishings. With the advent of a new century and newer technology, the company made a deal with Edison Records (Thomas Edison’s company) and produced phonograph cabinets around 1915 or 1916, in its New London, Wis., factory. By 1917, the company entered the recording business to provide records so buyers had something to play in their fancy new cabinets.
Paramount’s early recordings tended toward pop schmaltz, brass bands, and white ethnic music. It wasn’t until later that the label looked to a mostly untapped market, African Americans. Between 1922 and 1932, the Paramount Record Company operated a 78 rpm record pressing plant at 1819 South Green Bay Road, and added a studio in 1929, facilitating production and turning this blankest of towns into an African-American music shrine.
Purely by accident, of course. As these things go, it was done with profit in mind, and musical immortality was just a pleasant side effect. Paramount’s executives didn’t know the first thing about finding Black talent, and most of the label’s artists recorded on the recommendation of talent scouts H.C. Speir, a white music store owner in Jackson, Miss., and J. Mayo Williams, a Chicago-based African-American entrepreneur, producer, and former football player in the nascent NFL. While the early recording industry had its share of shadiness, if not for Speir and Williams much of the country blues, and other rural music, might have been lost. Even so, after World War II scrap drives and human indifference to preserving Black music, many of the 78s Paramount and others produced didn’t survive to the present day. Relics is not too strong a word for these records.
Back to Grafton. Even with a map, we had trouble finding the town’s center. Crossing the Milwaukee River by bridge, we stopped at Veterans Memorial Park to find our bearings. The park provides a pleasant view of the river with many trees, memorials, and the prerequisite gazebo. Under bright skies and edged in emerald foliage, it is undoubtedly enchanting. After consulting the map again we found and drove to Paramount Plaza.
The plaza has the look of most modern monuments, as if it was created by a well-meaning committee. A small stretch of space trying to cover as much territory as allowed. Not unsightly or disrespectful, just a bit busy. There’s a trio of statues in one spot, with a guitarist, a singer, and a trumpet-player. The statues might have been enough, but the site also features a large marble and brass, I presume, representation of a 78 rpm record with the Paramount logo.
And this too would be enough. But we also have a piano keyboard path, the keys inscribed with the names of bluesmen and -women who recorded in Grafton proper, alongside their alleged nicknames and aristo titles. “Blind Blake: King of Ragtime Guitar,” “Charley Patton: Father of the Delta Blues,” and so on. The plaza has a stage for musical performances—none happening that day, of course.
We strolled down Wisconsin Ave. and 12th Ave. in search of buildings indicated in the town’s walking tour. Incredibly, most of the original buildings of the time period remain, appear to be in good shape, and house local businesses. At 1219 12th Ave. sits Photography by Michael. Since 1872—way back to the daguerrotype days—the plot of land has hosted a photography studio. Some propose this was the site where the only known photos of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Blind Blake were snapped. But this is conjecture. Paramount did most of its business by mail, and further up Wisconsin Ave. is the former post office from which large shipments of records were shipped. I continued to snap pictures of Grafton’s elderly vernacular architecture, cringing at a Trump sign in the top left window of one building.
“What are you guys taking pictures of?” a women’s voice asked me. We turned and saw a local lady behind a tavern across the street. She sounded more curious than suspicious. I approached, and swiftly realized we were both maskless. I was vaccinated but had no ides if she was. Too late, too late.
“Hello, we’re visiting the Paramount Records sites,” I explain.
“Oh. Ah,” she replied in that tone that suggested she either had no clue what I was talking about or was weary of seeing her hometown invaded by middle-aged white male dorks.
“Say,” I continued. “How far is it to the site of the pressing plant. Uh…” I reduce my nerd factor. “That is, where would we find the falls?”
At this she brightens up.
“Oh! Well, the falls are that way.” She gestured elsewhere, down 12th Avenue. “But it’s about a half mile walk.” Piece of cake, I thought. After the sedentary lifestyle I’d acquired over the past year. I was ready to stretch my legs.
We thanked her and walked on. It’s a nice walk, past brick bungalows and other early 20th century homes. One was once owned by Alfred Schultz, the Paramount plant’s foreman and chief recording engineer. Another was formerly occupied by the Mintzlaff family, whose children shared stories in their adulthood of seeing Black musicians on their way to the studio. Wearing suits, hats, and ties, and carrying their instruments, sometimes singing, sometimes even stopping to sing for the Mintzlaffs, who clapped along. I found it hard to envision that halcyon and expansive past as we strode past several Trump signs.
Bluntly, imagining how Black southern musicians made their way up to the milky-white environs of Grafton is inconceivable. Some 750 miles stretch out between Mississippi and Grafton, and those are modern interstate miles versus the pre-Green Book rural roads and early highways performers had to travel. Some took the train to Milwaukee, disembarking, being put up in boarding houses by Paramount, going up to record in Grafton, then returning to Milwaukee. Reportedly, some performers stayed at the Grafton Hotel, an elegantly bricked lady that still stands downtown. In light of Van Der Tuuk’s descriptions of performers being rushed in and out of their sessions and the town, it seems unlikely.
For many years Paramount recorded Black performers in Richmond, Ind., or the former Lyon & Healy Building in the Loop (243 S. Wabash; now called the CDM Center and owned by DePaul University). But in 1929, the new studio was erected near the plant. During its brief existence, a number of classic blues numbers were recorded by Blind Blake, Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, The Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown, Elvie Thomas and Geechie Wiley, and others in the studio’s reportedly clammy and acoustically flat confines.
In time, Seth and I finally reached the site of the former plant and studio, both long gone, torn down in the 1930s. Beyond a historical marker laying out Paramount Record’s basic story, there’s nothing to indicate musical history was made and preserved there. A very pretty spot, the falls are low, burbling with great agitation over the rocks beside and under the Green Bay Road bridge. The rise over the river where the plant stood has remnants of industry. A few square yards of flat concrete, chunks of foundation overgrown by vegetation, and a single massive, rusted gear once attached to the apparatus that provided power to the whole shebang.
I won’t insult your intelligence by saying I could hear music on the wind or water. Not Patton’s stark encapsulation of the Black experience in America “High Water Everywhere”; James’ grim, unnerving take on the Depression, “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” or Thomas and Wiley’s soul-harrowing “Last Kind Words Blues”. Even so, it was disconcerting to look at the suburban void where the studio stood and imagine the staggering panoply of musical pain, pleasure, rage, and joy etched into shellac there.
Seth and I looked down from the bridge at the tumbling rapids, down in the aqueous muck of the Milwaukee River, where in 1935 (per local anecdotes), newly fired Paramount Records employees hucked 78s and metal masters into its shallow depths. The water roils and tumbles under the bridge, yet the rocks remain. Heavens, the metaphors and analogies abound.
Then the heavens opened up and Seth and I became soaked. Wrapping my camera in my shirt, we walked hunchbacked, up the street where the great old blues masters once walked, or rather were rushed through Grafton, but not before leaving something precious behind.