“Forgotten Blues” excerpts
© 11/04 Angela Mack originally published on paramountshome.org and creativeconnectionarts.org
I first became aware of the Paramount story when I received a bulk letter in my Grafton, WI mailbox close to the turn of the 21st century. It was from a man that I did not know. He claimed that Grafton, WI was once the home of a famous record company called Paramount. Immediately, I laughed. “Yeah right”, I thought, “in this totally uncultured town of people”. I knew it was hoax. After all, I had lived in the town for approximately 5 years and was a songwriter and recording artist myself. If a recording studio was truly a part of Grafton’s history, surely I would know about it! This man, John Teftteller, inquired if I had any of Paramount’s 78 records hiding in my basement. He claimed that the records recorded in Grafton were very special. He named some of the recording artists, but I never heard of them. After glancing at the very bizarre letter, I threw it in the trash and forgot about it for another few years.
Then, one day I was bored. So I decided to surf for awhile. Nothing seemed interesting. I decided to look into the history of my hometown, Grafton, WI. I found a lot of information about the town’s pride, the lime kilns that existed long ago and the quarry that used to be mined for limestone. I already knew this. I once saw a picture of the quarry in one of the banks while I was setting up a savings account for my young son. I also live very close to Lime Kiln Park. I live on West Falls Road in Grafton which is the same road that Lime Kiln Park is on. The lime kilns are still there. The quarry has since been filled, leaving a nice place to picnic. To be honest, I didn’t even know what a lime kiln was until I moved to Grafton. But I quickly learned that it as an important part of this community.
I searched the Internet diligently for some nugget of information about the recording studio that John Tefteller claimed to be here. Sure enough, I found some former articles from the Journal Sentinel that confirmed the reality of its existence. Immediately, I was intrigued. I was obsessed. I was in shock. I was in disbelief. I was in disgust that my city didn’t augment the story more. WHY? It was then that I was propelled into this obsession for finding the facts surrounding the Paramount Record Company in Grafton which flourished in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
I learned that Paramount was located in a Chair Factory which existed just off of the street that I live on. The Chair Factory rested along the Milwaukee River. In addition to furniture, they sold phonographs. In attempts to sell the phonographs, they allowed for a recording studio to dwell in the building which would make records to be given out with the phonographs. In my research, I learned that many African American blues artists came up from Mississippi and Chicago in the dead of the night via the electric train on the Interurban Trail to record their blues………………
Immediately, I contacted my city officials. I expressed my anger that there are seemingly huge events in Grafton’s history that are being forgotten. I expressed my fury that there weren’t any monuments or pictures of these black recording artists. Paramount’s history isn’t accentuated like it should be. I quickly received a cordial response. I was informed that, “just last year”, a historical marker was set up near he location of the Chair Factory mentioning Paramount Records. It was a nice letter, a little too nice? I wondered why it took so long for a historical marker to be erected in honor of Paramount. I wondered if it had something to do with John Tefteller, a man from New York, who shed light into every home in this area?
Next, I attempted to find the historical marker. Funny, but I kept driving past it. I couldn’t figure out where to park. It was hard to get to. Finally, I found it, read the Paramount blurb and wanted to cry. It didn’t seem to say enough. As I gazed down at the Milwaukee River, I heard the river running over the rocks creating beautiful melodies. My heart missed these blues artists, whoever they were. I felt sad for them. I oddly felt connected to them. I felt sorry that, even though the city officials are currently aware of Paramount’s history, the residents aren’t.
Experimentally, I have asked resident after resident if they’ve ever heard of Paramount. The area artists and musicians seem to know a little about it. But the average citizen does not. The area of the torn down Chair Factory is hauntingly eerie. It is fascinatingly compelling. The spirit of the blues is down there. The spirit of the African American singers is down there. I know because I felt it. I had nothing to do but to feel tremendous pride and respect. Greatness dwelt here. But still, I wanted to know more…………….
I began to share my passion over the history of Grafton with my petite Italian friend, Missy…………. She dynamically got on board with the vision and mission. As someone who is passionate about and actively prays for people and society, she shared how she prayed at the historical place years ago but didn’t know the significance of it. She wanted to go there and pray together. So, we went to the historical area to pray. We walked around on the opposite side of the river from the recording studio and prayed among the trees………
Shortly after, Missy and I spread the news of Paramount to our family and friends. Missy discovered that her Grandfather, Joe Gumin, recorded with the sister company of Paramount called Broadway. Her grandfather was from Sicily jazz musician. Missy learned that her deceased grandfather may have some of the rare Paramount records.
I told the story to a group of friends who came over one night. Some of them were shocked that they lived in this area for so long and didn’t know about it. …..
So eleven of us drove in the dark to the location of where Paramount once stood……
When we crossed the bridge to get to our destination, Mark whispered to all of us, “Immediately, I am struck by the noise of the river flowing over the rocks. The river is making music. When we get to the location, let’s quietly listen…………
We quietly walked down by the river and listened. Again, it was eerie. Everyone silently walked around to listen. One of my friends, Kat, was a little afraid. “The sap hanging on the old pine tree seemed to have formed tears”, she said. Then my husband commented, “Imagine what these trees have seen.”
“Hey everybody!” shouted Mark. “Look what I found! It’s one of the beams from the original foundation!” He pulled out a worn piece of wood from a crevice in the cement foundation.
Then my ten year old son cleared his throat. “I think he has something to say,” I said.
“I can just see people playing jazz on the big rocks in the river,” he said motioning toward the river with his hand, “like someone with a cello and other jazz instruments.” Josh was right, I could envision that, too. The rocks were certainly large enough and the water wasn’t too deep.
I shared that if the blues music scene returned to Grafton, it would affect Milwaukee just as the Milwaukee River flows into Milwaukee…….
We continued to walk around in the dark, sharing our thoughts as they came. Together we dreamed. We prayed. We reminisced and tried to imagine. I stumbled upon a huge stump of a tree approximately 3 feet wide at the edge of the river and sat there. I closed my eyes. Again, I was sad. How I wish I could have witnessed it all! How I would have loved to hear Charley Patton, founder of the Delta Blues who recorded at least 28 times in Grafton. I thought about Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Son” House, Tommy Johnson, Skip James, “Papa” Charlie Jackson, Ida Cox, Louise Johnson, and “Ma” Rainey, “Mother of the Blues”.
I thought about the tremendous excitement that they must have felt. After all, Paramount recorded many of the first African American records ever. They recorded at least 1/ 4 of all of the blues music in America at that time. These Delta Blues artists were foundational in American music in general. The Delta Blues was an off-shoot of the African-American work songs. In fact, many of these musicians lived on plantations in Mississippi. The joy they must have felt! Did they celebrate and play in this river together? Did they sit out on the rocks and play the blues to the evening sky? As I listened and wondered, I faintly heard the deep rich voice of a black man and a guitar. I sang with him in a slow and mournful tone, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound”.
When I got up from the tree stump, I listened to more people share their thoughts and feelings. Missy described how there used to be a dam in the river. She talked about the river providing power. Victor, Jodi, and Chris were standing together up by the road reading the Paramount historical marker in the dark. My eight year old son, Timothy, commented, “This is a happy place”.
On the way back to our cars, Victor who looks like a lumberjack in his big fluffy gray beard and hair explained to me that many new species of fish have come up to Grafton from Milwaukee after the dam was broken down. Being a fisherman, he knew much about the river.
Since my friends and I took our little field trip to the Paramount site, I’ve been madly searching for information about the lives of the African American recording artists who developed their dream in Grafton. The more I have researched, the more appalled I have become. WHY ISN’T THIS CELEBRATED IN A BIG WAY? THIS IS A HUGE DEAL IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN AND MUSICAL HISTORY! It has infuriated me.
If I was in charge of Grafton, immediately I would erect a museum honoring the Delta Blues. I would visually show how the African American slaves gave us their spirituals and work songs. These beget Delta Blues. Delta Blues beget other blues. Later, many other styles like Dixieland and Boogie Woogie came along. Then came Be-Bop and, eventually, Rock and Roll. Everybody would know how foundational Delta Blues was in American music overall.
I would open a happening blues club with all sorts of memorabilia about Paramount and its recording artists. We would have our Chatton Burgers, “Ma Rainey” fries and Skip James pizza. I would make sure that everybody remembers their names. Their pictures would be painted on a mural.
I would also hold a yearly national blues festival bringing in all sorts of musicians. I bet Eric Clapton would come.
I would make sure that every music program in Ozaukee and Milwaukee County teaches their children the story and takes their children to Grafton for a field trip. I would celebrate it in the parades. (Not one of the parades has done this yet.) Instead of just the lime kilns, the black recording artists’ photographs would be permanently hung in our banks.
Busloads of kids from Milwaukee would come to Grafton on the weekends to attend blues workshops. They would learn to be proud of the blues. I would get Oprah to come to town and tell the entire world about how great these recording artists were. I would make a feature film about the lives of the famous people who came here. I would make music videos with artists playing their instruments on the rocks in the river and while standing on the big tree stump along the river’s edge. Yes, I have big dreams for Grafton, WI but no money. What’s a student to do?
I don’t know why my town doesn’t make a big deal out of the stories behind Paramount. God, I hope it isn’t because they don’t want to attract blues lovers and artists to Grafton. I hope that the blues story isn’t forgotten or diminished on purpose. This would be a travesty. Maybe they are just ignorant….ignorant about African American and music history. If that is the case, I will do my best to keep the city informed and I will pray that somebody or some group comes along with some money to bring the story of the forgotten blues alive.
Taken from my website http://www.creativeconnectionarts.com
NOTE: SINCE THIS ARTICLE WAS WRITTEN IN 2004, MANY GROUPS AND INDIVIDUALS IN GRAFTON HAVE BECOME EXCITED ABOUT GRAFTON’S MUSIC HISTORY. THE FOLLOWING ARE SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THIS NEWFOUND AWARENESS:
Angela got in touch with Alex van der Tuuk and began corresponding with him on a regular basis and reading his book
ParamountsHome goes online, collects data, and begins networking locally and worldwide
Kris Marshall of the Grafton Jaycees begins to tackle the project of putting on a blues festival in Grafton after Angela Mack proposed the idea to the group.
Angela gets in touch with Michael “Hawkeye” Herman and he begins encouraging her and mentoring her toward her goals.
Joe Krupski approaches the Grafton Planning Commission to open a Paramount Restaurant
Michael “Hawkeye” Herman does Blues in the Schools for all 3 Grafton Elementary Schools (Thanks to principal Scott Oftedahl, area music teachers and Kennedy P.A.C.E.)
“Embrace the Legacy” concert series designed to educate adults about Paramount at the Timothy Wooden Building/North Shore Academy of the Arts (Thanks to Barbara Krause and Grafton Area Live Arts)
“Paramount Blues Festival” at the Cedarburg Cultural Center featuring Ann Rabson, Fruitland Jackson, and a Paramount panel discussion
Ad Hoc Committee forms to discuss the possibilities of incorporating the Paramount theme into the downtown redevelopment and Grafton’s identity. Ad Hoc Committee Members Present: Jim Brunnquell, Jim Grant, Angela Mack, Tom Sweet, Melissa Schmitz, Darrell Hofland, and Michael Rambousek. Discussion begins about creating a Paramount music society of sorts
Paramount GIG (Grooves in Grafton) begins to form and later brings “the mobile museum” to area banks, businesses, and the library to educate the community. (Thanks to Missy Schmitz)
Grafton Blues Association begins to form out of members from the Grafton Jaycees
Paramount GIG presents “A Dance With Early Jazz” to raise funds for the etching of artists into the Walk of Fame
ParamountsHome wins the annual Wisconsin Historical Society website award
PBS History Detectives films in Grafton
“Lost Musical Treasure” by PBS History Detectives airs nationwide
The Grafton Hotel is purchased by Rob Ruvin
North Shore Academy of the Arts presents “Passionate about Paramount and the Blues” at the Grafton children’s library
First annual Paramount Blues Festival presented by the Grafton Blues Association and attended by first lady Jessica Doyle
Representative Mark Gottlieb issues a legislative citation to the Village of Grafton acknowledging the importance of the history and praising the Village, individuals, and groups who have embraced the history
The Village of Grafton holds the first annual Walk of Fame ceremony to honor Henry Towsend as the first inductee into the new Walk of Fame
North Shore Academy of the Arts presents a second annual “Embrace the Legacy” concert featuring the Paul Curtis Band
ParamountsHome lectures at the Wisconsin State Historical Museum
Henry Townsend Memorial Benefit Concert presented by the GBA- American Legion, Grafton
November 2006 Grafton Blues Association becomes organization of the year – Grafton Chamber of Commerce
November 2006 Paramount Plaza tree lighting ceremony – Grafton Chamber of Commerce
December 2006 Paramount Restaurant opens and begins to provide a venue for musicians to play (Thanks to Joe Krupski)
December 2006 North Shore Academy of the Arts finishes its recording studio
December 2006 Paramount GIG begins to merge into the Village of Grafton Historical Preservation Commission
June 2007 Playwrite Kevin Ramsey announces his new musical, “Grafton City Blues” to be performed at the Milwaukee Rep Theatre Jan-March 2008
June 2007 Paramount Walking Tour is completed
Summer 2007 Many of the components of the Paramount Plaza are completed
September 2007 2nd annual Paramount Blues Festival
September 22, 2007 Walk of Fame ceremony inducting Louis Armstrong and Son House. Dick Waterman came for the ceremony and gave the Grafton Historic Preservation Commission a photo of Son House and Skip James that hasn’t ever been published before.
October 18, 2007 Village of Grafton and Grafton State Bank formally dedicate the sculpture by Norm Christensen