Legendary Bluesman Mose Allison Takes Scientists And Shakespeare On A Romp Through The Delta.
By Dave McElfresh
DECEMBER 7, 1999: A PHONE CONVERSATION with blues pianist/singer Mose Allison's got nearly drowned out by the powerful tenor singing in the background. "This is opera day on QXR, which is one of my favorite stations in New York," he explained, adding that he's just as fond of the folk and world music stations in the area. It's the first of many comments by the septuagenarian to upend the notion of a bluesman as a struggling and uninformed, region-confined musician.
For starters, he's not struggling. His schedule, long contracted years in advance, is about to kick into overdrive. "After I play Arizona I'll be coming back to New York to play a weekend," he says. "Then I'll go to my usual gig in Washington, D.C., where I always play for the first four nights after New Year's Eve. Then comes London."
London has long been Allison's center of support. Though the Mississippian first recorded for the Prestige label back in the '50s as a country bluesman, his notoriety came by way of the British pop charts and singer/pianist Georgie Fame, known for a 1965 hit, "Yeh Yeh." Fame was a hardcore blues and jazz fan, who flashed the Delta influence of Mose Allison in band lineups that employed jazz guitarist John McLaughlin and soon-to-be Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
"Georgie Fame was one of the first to play my tunes back in the '60s," recalls Allison, who remains appreciative of the strong overseas tie that began back in the Mersey Beat era. The connection has spanned nearly 35 years due to Fame's permanent position as pianist with another major Allison disciple, Van Morrison. While the temperamental Morrison is exceptionally critical of the music scene in general, his respect for Mose Allison resulted in the 1996 tribute album, Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison, which Allison believes has "helped me a lot with the younger audiences." A sizable segment of both young and older British music lovers are showing up at his concerts.
"I go to London twice a year and play three weeks at a time, usually 15 or 16 nights," says Allison. For years now, the lengthy date continues to sell out -- a rarity for an artist's club appearance. "They can't believe it themselves. I can't either," says Allison in a statement typical of his humble Southern roots.
Primarily what maintains his status in a blues culture currently favoring young white boys with flashy guitar chops is an urban style of lyric writing far more colorful than anyone since Robert Johnson.
"The blues can be boring and repetitious. I lost interest in some of my favorite blues people because they kept singing songs about my-baby-done-left-me," he admits. "You can only hang with that for so long. You've got to come up with subjects that are current and more pertinent than that. I've tried to put something in the blues that's more interesting, both lyrically and harmonically."
Lyrically, could his wit have anything to do with him having earlier pursued English and philosophy in college? "Well, that helped," Allison says. " 'The Fool Killer' I wrote based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet. And 'Let It Come Down' was taken from Shakespeare. In Macbeth the first murderer says to the second murderer, 'Looks like there's going to be rain tonight,' and the second man pulls out a knife and says, 'Let it come down.'
"But I haven't been influenced by any songwriters," Allison insists, though he admits he admires the writing of the much younger folkie Loudon Wainwright. "My style just developed from the blues in general as well as some stuff that isn't the blues."
Especially jazz. "I don't just stick to the three chord structure. When I'm playing the blues I put other changes in there alongside my improvisations. Some of them like 'The Seventh Son' are built on an Afro-Cuban beat, which I first played in a Latin band in San Antonio, Texas, back around 1950, even before Dizzy Gillespie turned jazz onto the Afro-Cuban scene."
Though both literature and jazz have been a significant influence -- Allison has played with major jazz figures like Al Cohn and Stan Getz -- he's been no less influenced by, of all things, the physicists and sociologists whose books he voraciously reads.
"Over the last few years I've read a lot of science books and have found that they don't know any more about it all than anybody else. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman says the only certainty is uncertainty. I've also read Murray Gell-Mann's writings on quantum mechanics, like The Quark And The Jaguar, and found that I'm just a complex adaptive system."
Such technical terminology is often tweaked into typically quirky Mose Allison material. "Your Molecular Structure" was influenced by Allison's reading of Marshall McLuhan. Lines like "high-frequency modulated Jezebel" are, Mose says, "just a scientific take on 'Hey, Good-Lookin.' "
Allison was interested in the idea of synchronicity -- that altering one half of a split atom affects the other, unconnected half -- long before the Police named an album after the concept. "Yeah, you mess with something here and you affect something a thousand light years away," he worries. "How do you know that every time you take a breath you're not killing somebody?"
On a more positive note, maybe every time Allison plays one of his idiosyncratic blues numbers, an up-and-coming musician in the next century will write a blues about morphing out of a love affair or losing one's baby to a wormhole in space.
Wherever the blues end up in the next century is fine with Allison, whose unlikely sci-fi mindset leads him to refuse mentorship in the new millenium. "I don't try to explain anything to anybody," he tells blues travellers looking for direction in his dense lyrics. "You can figure that out for yourself."
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