The $400 blues

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As you may have heard on NPR or elsewhere, rock musician Jack White’s Third Man Records and the folk label Revenant Records have teamed up to reissue the legendary recordings by one of the most crucial labels of early blues and jazz, Paramount Records.  Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ida Cox, Charley Patton — these and other immortal artists can still be heard today primarily or exclusively on their Paramount sides.  Other celebrated artists, such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter and Jelly Roll Morton, also waxed important music for Paramount.  How a Wisconsin-based chair manufacturer came to be such a major force in “race records,” as they were known in the 1920’s, is a fascinating story well told by Tom Cole in the NPR piece.

So, how will the Third Man/Revenant reissues be marketed?  As affordable CD sets?  User-friendly downloads?  No such luck, music lovers, or at least music lovers of the “75 Percent” or thereabouts.  Rather, the labels are soon to issue the “Paramount Records Wonder-Cabinet,” a luxurious package containing fancy print materials, high-end vinyl pressings of 800 tracks and a USB drive containing all materials in digital form, all stuffed into a “handcrafted quarter-sawn oak cabinet with lush sage velvet upholstery and custom-forged metal hardware.”  Price tag:  $400.  And by the way, this fabulous package, formally titled “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, 1917-1932” is just Volume 1.  Volume 2 comes out a few months later, no doubt in a separate casket — er, velvet-lined wooden box.

$400.  That’s about what you’d fork out for an extremely fine bottle of Single Malt, which would no doubt make a splendid complement to Blind Lemon’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean” or Patton’s “Down That Dirt Road Blues.”  Such raw, authentic musical expressions of the human spirit!  Such a complex whiskey, with overtones of sea salt, peat smoke, butterscotch and leather!  You could even pretend that your exquisite Isla or Speyside was actually Sterno strained through bread, a favorite digestif of impecunious and unchoosy bluesmen.

All right, look — I tend toward the libertarian in matters of product pricing, preferring that market set the rate.  Perhaps Third Man and Revenant have choosen a wise business model here, and their Wonder Cabinet will be wonderfully successful.  And although they’ve made no noises about it, perhaps they’ll follow the big boxes up with more affordable issues of the same material.  I hope so, since the remastering I heard on the NPR piece was excellent, no small consideration given how the source material was notoriously lo-fi even for its time.

But isn’t there something a little unseemly and culturally arrogant about turning such downmarket (and fabulous) music into such an upmarket commodity?  I’m reminded of the French aristocracy of the 18th century, playing at shepherds and milkmaids, enjoying simple peasant foods (just more of it than the peasants got to eat) and country-dancing to the music of the humble bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy.  “Poverty Chic” is how others have described this distasteful phenomenon.  I think it fits here too.

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