So I went on the high-anus again.
As soon as Thanksgiving hit, my world went haywire and didn’t come back to any semblance of reality until, um, now? And even then, not really. I caught the nuclear flu one day into our trip to Missouri for Christmas, was knocked out for three days, two recovery days and then home, only to pick up a nuclear cold bug one day into being home, making my voice virtually inoperable for four days, and have now spent the past three days in drain mode, which means hacking up disgustingness from my lungs and feeling like my ears had a bowl of Rice Krispies dumped in them.
This was originally going to be my inaugural sailerb post, but I never got around to it; with the recent news that the Paramount in Grafton closed its doors, I decided to give it another go. Here goes.
In recent years, I have fallen in love with the blues. Early, crusty, pre-war blues up to Buddy Guy and some of those other 60s bluesmasters not named BB King. So when I finally got around to Son House, and discovered that he (amongst others) had recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin (!), it became a mild hajj of sorts to get down to the land of Oz to see the site and see what’s left.
[Naturally, I was about 10-12 years too late. Or 70.]
So, with friend and soon-to-be-wedlocked friend Andy as co-pilot, we set out for Grafton last fall. After doing some brief prep and research courtesy the online presences of the Grafton Blues Association and Alex van der Tuuk’s paramountshome.org, I figured the burg would be a little nexus of blues history. After all, that’s how it was played up. Surely they would not be lying!
Aside from a small, easily ignored revitalization of its downtown and the addition of some blue notes on their lamp-post banners, Grafton has done next to nothing to honor a rich, unexpected heritage of some of the most important and influential artists of the 20th Century. It seems like no one in the town really cares.
So we went to an antique shop near the revitalization, and aside from having a rack of blues CDs (we ended up feasting on that), it seemed a lot like your garden variety Wisconsin antique shop. Not that we were expecting ot find a trove of Paramount 78s or anything (most of those, according to urban legend, were snatched up in the early 90s, found in an abandoned warehouse, became target practice in Port Washington or dumped into the Milwaukee River), but what we found was a town quickly morphing into suburbia (as the land of Oz has rapidly become, particularly Cedarburg and Grafton) from being a sleepy-eyed river town that the railroads forgot then the interstate remembered.
Then we went in search of the Wisconsin Chair Factory site, the hallowed ground where blues men and women recorded some of the earliest mass production blues records in America. What we found (by accident), was a plaque at the corner of a road and a bridge over the Milwaukee, a concrete foundation and some old bricks. The area had become a neighborhood in the 70s (the factory itself, which spanned the river, had burned much earlier), and one property’s boundary quite literally met the brick and mortar.
Such is how history is forgotten.
I recently read of a dispute in Virginia between Civil War battlefield preservationists and Wal-Mart, which wanted to drop a new store a mile or so from the site. To be fair, most of the war was fought in Virginia, most of her soil has Union and Confederate blood in her sediment. If we were to preserve history, we would probably still be in thatched huts in a still-barbarian Europe, dying from the plague and speaking in unknown tongues without the utterance or enabling of spirit. Naturally, there’s a tug-of-war between the preservation of history and the inevitability of progress. The Muslim stewards of the Temple Mount are allegedly busy destroying relics of ancient Israel, peasants in Egypt burned much of what we know as the Nag Hammadi library papyri to keep warm at night. Ebbets Field was blown up to make way for government housing. The Met Center was blown up to expand the drab Mall of America; when those plans were scrapped, it became the site of an Ikea. (And Norm Green still sucks.) When my grandmother died almost three years ago, it wasn’t long after she was put in the ground that her lifetime of obsessive hoarding began to make its way to the curb. What is made is to be unmade, what is created ends up destroyed. Whomever is born is doomed to die.
And the Wisconsin Chair Factory is–in quintessentially Midwestern fashion, a cultural relic from a pragmatic, pioneer past–a retaining wall for some yuppie’s waterfront property.
Heritage has a strange, Darwinian way about it.
So we set out to spend a day in Wisconsin’s unlikely capital for the blues. What we got was about two hours’ worth of actual time exploring. The Grafton Public Library had nothing, not even the walking tour material touted on van der Tuuk’s website. And the restaurant conceived in a brief fad of music appreciation, Paramount, didn’t open until 5 PM. When we went in to see a menu, they looked at us like we were crazy. That, and the joint didn’t even resemble a blues-inspired haunt, save for an old phonograph player and, yes, a handful of Paramount 78s. It was high-brow, upscale, more jazz lounge than juke joint. They opened a restaurant trying to honor the blues, and had no idea how to pull it off. The hours on the door said they were open all day, and did not actually open until the evening.
So, when the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s dining blog reported that Paramount had shut its doors for good, I nodded to myself and accepted it. They said they fell prey to the economy. In reality, they serve as a metaphor for a community without a sense of temporal, spatial or historical place. People live there when they don’t commute into Milwaukee or head north to a family cabin for the weekend. Strangers who wander a little too far from the interstate get looks from the locals. After all, there is nothing to see here.
One gets the feeling that blues folk 70+ years ago could identify all too well.