Embracing Grafton’s Blue Legacy by Steve Ostermann 2005, Ozaukee Press

July 5, 2021
embracing grafton blues

This article was originally published in the Ozaukee Press on August 4, 2005 then posted with permission on paramountshome.org

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Early discussion at the Cedarburg Cultural Center

Embracing the Legacy of the Blues

Grafton Wisconsin History

Embracing Grafton’s blue legacy – 08-04-2005
Music teacher’s quest to acknowledge village’s role in music history leads to concert series, programs

Photo by Vern Arendt
Photo by Vern Arendt

Ozaukee Press staff

(Reprinted with the permission of Steve Ostermann and the Ozaukee Press)

When Angela Mack moved to her Falls Road residence in Grafton eight years ago, she had no idea her home was just up the road from a landmark site in American music history.

More than 70 years ago, blues artists from the deep South journeyed to Grafton to record tunes at a studio in the Wisconsin Chair Co. factory near the northeast corner of what is now Falls Road and 12th Avenue.

The studio years didn’t last long — from 1929 to 1932 — but the sessions for Paramount Records yielded dozens of classic performances by blues legends such as Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Blind Blake, Willie Brown, Louise Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy.

In addition to blues music, the studio recorded hundreds of artists in other genres ranging from ethnic folk to dance band music.

“I was astounded at what I found out,” said Mack, a composer and music teacher with the North Shore Academy of the Arts in Grafton. “It was amazing to think this happened in our town, and that so many people are not even aware of it.”

Mack, who first heard of Grafton’s Paramount connection from a record collector hunting for rare 78-rpms three years ago, has learned much about the chair company’s role in early recorded blues. The knowledge was not only intriguing, but it inspired her to spread the word.

“At first I was just mad that this wasn’t being acknowledged,” Mack said. “I was bound and determined to find out as much as I could and get something done.”

Mack talked to village officials, business people and civic leaders and eventually struck a chord with Barb Krause, one of the founders of Grafton Area Live Arts. The group, established in 2001 to bring music and other live performances to the community, has presented a variety of concerts, including a popular summer series at Veterans Memorial Park.

It didn’t take long for Krause to buy into Mack’s idea of creating a musical tribute to Grafton’s record-making role.

The result is “Embrace the Legacy,” a concert series featuring popular blues, jazz and rock artists that will debut this fall at the North Shore Academy, 1111 Broad St.

“I thought it would be a great way for people to learn about the history of Grafton through music,” Krause said. “I’m hoping we can make it an annual event.”

The series, presented by GALA in cooperation with the academy, will include three concerts in the Timothy Wooden Building, which is only a few blocks from where the chair company factory once stood.

The Sept. 30 opener features Michael “Hawkeye” Herman, a nationally known blues performer and educator who will also talk about Grafton’s often-overlooked role in the recording industry and the musicians who came here.

The series, sponsored by Grafton State Bank, continues Oct. 14 with the Greg Wessel Band, which will perform blues, rock and jazz, and concludes Oct. 21 with New Orleans jazz musician Norrie Cox and his band.

The day of his concert, Herman will also present a program on local blues history to students at Grafton’s three public elementary schools.

Although the focal point of the “Legacy” series is blues, the shows will present a variety of music, Mack said, to underscore the influence blues has had on other forms of expression.

“Hawkeye has a song that says, ‘Blues had a baby, and they called it rock ’n’ roll,’” she said.

“American blues has it roots in the Mississippi Delta, but it has influenced so many other types of music. That’s something everyone can appreciate.”

Mack’s effort to share the village’s blues legacy extends to other venues, as well. She will teach a three-class workshop, “Grafton’s Paramount History,” at the academy from 6 to 7 p.m. Fridays, Sept. 9, 16 and 23.

Designed for students ages 10 and older, the workshop will give participants a chance to hear and learn about blues legends in Grafton, write and play blues songs and take a field trip to the site of the chair company factory, which was razed in the late 1930s. The fee is $40.

On Oct. 1, Mack will be part of a panel discussion of Paramount studios at 3 p.m. at the Cedarburg Cultural Center.

The program, which includes a slide show, will precede a 7:30 p.m. blues concert at the center featuring Fruteland Jackson and Ann Rabson. The musicians will perform 1920s and ’30s blues as it was recorded in Grafton.

Since Mack began exploring Grafton’s music history, she has talked with and met a number of musicians and authorities, including Dutch author Alex van der Tuuk, whose award-winning book “Paramount’s Rise and Fall” was published in 2003.

She and van der Tuuk have created the Web site www.paramountshome.creativeconnectionarts.com.

“When I first started learning about the blues in Grafton, it amazed me that it took someone to come here from Holland and write a book about our history,” Mack said.

“Hopefully, what we’re doing here now will make a difference by letting people know what we had.”

Updated  Thursday, August 04, 2005    Written by Steve Ostermann    293  reads

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Angie Mack is a musical director, performing artist, blues educator and writer who has a wealth of experience and connections in the arts and entertainment industry.

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