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Monday, Jan. 14, 2008

Those Old Wisconsin Blues

A world-premiere musical

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January 10, 2008

Most residents of southeast Wisconsin, even music fans, are still surprised to learn that Port Washington and Grafton were home to a significant blues label in the 1920s, Paramount Records. Awareness has been rising: Dutch blues researcher Alex van der Tuuk authored a book on the label, and a Paramount Restaurant and "walk of fame" have been opened in downtown Grafton. And coming this month is the world premiere of a musical inspired by Paramount Records, Grafton City Blues, at the Stackner Cabaret.

"It was odd—the all-white German-Norwegian town of Grafton was where some of the great blues musicians came to make their records," says the musical's author, Kevin Ramsey. The young African-American actor and choreographer saw the potential when, while in Milwaukee earlier this year directing a revue of Sam Cooke songs, someone told him about Paramount. A native of New Orleans with a deep interest in black music and culture, Ramsey seized the possibility of transforming an important footnote in the history of the blues into a vibrant contemporary musical.

It's an odd story indeed. Paramount was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Co., a Port Washington firm with a line of phonograph cabinets. Someone had the idea to produce phonograph records as an incentive for customers. Such nickel-and-dime concerns grew into a thriving sideline during World War I when a romantic Englishman in search of the Old West, Arthur Satherly, discovered the sonic frontier in Wisconsin and took charge of the label.

Paramount recorded dance and marching bands, popular singers and ethnic music of all sorts. By the early 1920s, Satherly, with the clear-eyed perspective of a foreigner, recognized the potential of the African-American market. As a result, Paramount released early recordings by blues legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, Charlie Patton and Ida Cox. A college-educated black talent scout, J. Mayo Williams, scoured the South for talent.

"How do you talk about history without it feeling like a documentary or a sermon?" Ramsey wondered as he sifted through the Paramount story. "I looked at blues and where it came from—the trans-Atlantic slave trade—and what it influenced: jazz, rock 'n' roll and hip-hop. I knew I wanted to talk about the people who were part of that experience and also the mind-set of the label's white owners."

Since there is every reason to suppose that none of Paramount's black artists saw the sun go down on Grafton, they probably rode back to Milwaukee by train after their sessions and returned to Chicago or points south the following day. Ramsey's play is set in an imagined way station in Milwaukee's Bronzeville district, specifically an attic where memories of Paramount, including old phonographs and antique instruments, are stored.

"Grafton City Blues deals with the spirit world in that everyone in the play is dead," Ramsey explains. "I don't tell the story in a linear way. People appear and disappear from the stage."

Shifts in time will be indicated through lighting and music. Each member of the four-person multiethnic cast plays multiple characters associated with the label, sometimes changing roles by changing hats.

"When you can humanize something, it becomes universal," Ramsey says of the musical's potential beyond Wisconsin. "It's not just about Paramount. The blues is a through line in American culture. Regardless of our ethnicity, we all have things we store away in our attics and lose touch with. We can leave it that way or we can find a way to connect with our history."

Grafton City Blues runs Jan. 11-March 9 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St.