Until recently, most residents of Grafton, Wis. (10,312), had little idea they were living on musically sacred ground.
Nearly 80 years ago, Grafton’s now-long-demolished Wisconsin Chair factory operated a small recording studio and record-pressing company, Paramount Records, which spun out some 1,600 blues, jazz and gospel records between 1929 and 1932 and led the nation in discovering pioneering blues musicians. But few townspeople had any memory—or realized the significance—of Grafton’s historical role as a musical mecca where dozens of black performers traveled from the Deep South to make records that, decades later, shaped the sounds of blues-influenced rock acts such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton.
“Some of the remaining older generation knew about it,” says Grafton resident Kris Marshall, 41. “But I don’t think they realized its relevance and impact on music today.”
While townspeople were largely unaware, some record collectors and music historians from across the nation, and even around the world, were fascinated with the town’s musical history. “It appears that everyone knew about Paramount and Grafton,” says Village President Jim Brunnquell, “except for the village of Grafton.”
When a record collector from Oregon visited Grafton in 2002 looking for remnants of Paramount, it triggered a reawakening. Upon learning that the pioneering recording studio and record pressing plant had operated on the street where she lives, resident Angela Mack, 37, launched a website, www.paramountshome.org, and a campaign to publicize the fact that blues legends, including Charley Patton, “Son” House, Louise Johnson and Skip James, once had recorded in her hometown.
Energized, Grafton officials—who had been seeking a suitable redevelopment theme for several years—began working to incorporate a musical design in the downtown plaza. Now a Walk of Fame resembling a giant keyboard adorns the new Paramount Plaza, with names of noted Paramount artists to be etched annually into its 44 black, 7-foot-long keys. Adjacent to the area, the Paramount Restaurant, featuring music memorabilia from the recording era, has opened in the former Bienlein hotel, where the performers likely stayed while they were in town.
“There’s a whole new awareness of Grafton’s connection to blues, jazz, gospel and other music,” Brunnquell says.
In 2005, Marshall founded the Grafton Blues Society, which will stage its second annual Grafton Paramount Blues Festival Sept. 21 and 22 with a host of performers and other activities that honor the town’s musical past.
Henry James Townsend, 96, the last surviving Paramount recording artist, attended last year’s festival and was honored as the first inductee on the town’s Walk of Fame. Musician David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 91, who missed his train and didn’t make it to Grafton 77 years ago, also came to perform.
Former Grafton resident Margaretha Mintzlaff Bevington, 92, returned from Scottsdale, Ariz., to sit in the front row at last year’s festival. She looked forward to tipping her hat at the performers, just as she remembered they used to tip theirs to her and her mother 80 years ago as they passed their house on the way to the recording studio.
“They walked with a special flair, humming and singing,” Bevington recalls.
Now Grafton is singing an upbeat tune, too, and its once almost-forgotten musical heritage is attracting more devotees all the time.
“I feel life in Grafton,” Mack says. “I’m meeting fellow citizens who are excited to know they live in a place with a unique musical history. I see the pride in their faces and I’m hearing the buzz everywhere. And it’s only going to get better.”