mose allsion interview
by chris mchale
published by Riveting Riffs magazine
People have been listening a long time now. The decades roll by, the beats change, the tempo quickens and slows, but something is always the same, the common thread, the shared experience. The man calls it the essentials.
“When I was growing up, there were a couple of general stores and the train station, but the train stopped coming years ago. It’s just an intersection now.”
Tippo, Missipppi, in the 1930’s, a new sound on the radio, a full-throated horn from down on Bourbon Street lacing the ether, promising something in the swing, a mystery, a calling. Outside the window of the farmhouse, rising from the Delta, the liquid earth, another sound, the resonant soul of the blues. Jazz and the blues become the twin pillars of groove.
It’s a small world of pigeonholes for an artist like Mose Allison. People fall over themselves to get him into a category, make him fit into a neat little box, labeled and put on the shelf. It makes life work better for some, like you can only find the soup if all the soup cans are together, that kind of thinking.
“Well, I don't worry about it, you know, because I played blues and I played jazz both. I learned about them in Mississippi at an early age, so its never bothered me. I lived all over. I used to go to towns. I had a bass player and he went with me every place and we got different drummers and we had a tenor player one time and a trumpet player once before, so we used to go around and get jobs and my wife would go with me and she would get a job of some kind and that was the prevailing thing in those days. I lived all over. You can't do that now, but then you could do it in big towns like Dallas. I went to Savannah and I ended up in Florida and so forth and I went out to Denver for a while. They were different kinds of jobs. Most of them were in lounges, clubs that had jazz sometimes. Mostly people, well, they were ignoring, you know. I heard that jazz musicians were making a living in New York.”
So in 1956 the man took his songs to New York. A young Elvis in town doing the Dorsey Brothers show, Bud Powell feathering the keys down at Birdland and Mose soon pacing his chops behind Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Gerry Mulligan. Go farther downtown and something else was brewing in the city, something that would lift Mose Allison right out of the jazz scene and define his career as an artist.
McDougal Street, Café Wha?, Gerde's Folk City, The Bitter End, Cafe Au Go Go, The Gaslight, Phil Ochs, Dave Van Ronk and that farm boy from Hibbing, Bob Dylan. There was a new audience with a new set of ears and they were interested in the artist themselves, what they thought, how they felt. A burbling cauldron down below Washington Square produced an entirely new breed of performer, the singer-songwriter. Mose Allison, with his deep roots in country blues lending a recognizable authenticity to his songs, and his sophisticated jazz lyricism, a perfect counterpoint to the ascension of the Beats of the 50’s, was positioned to till new soil. Allison’s road of gigs slowly spread through this new scene and eventually took him across the ocean, where British rockers discovered a voice replete with the irony and wit they loved, but planted firmly in the Delta soil they so respected. For Allison, it became what it always had been. It became about the songs themselves
“It's just a matter of getting an idea and getting the punch line. I get the punch line first pretty much, and then it's a matter of completing it. I don’t go to the piano until later. I work it out in my head. I have no idea what inspirations are involved. I've had blues inspirations and jazz inspirations. I heard Louie Armstrong about the same time I heard the country blues. I started playing piano and I started singing and I wrote a song when I was thirteen years old. I’ve been singing for sixty years. I've sung songs recently that I wrote thirty years ago and people hear them and think I just wrote them. People ask me if a wrote a song about some recent situation and I tell them I've been singing about that situation for forty years.”
It’s been five or six generations of people discovering Mose Allison. His song catalog is like the gift that keeps giving, no matter how many years roll by. Life on an endless highway and up in the jet stream, but the songs provided the fuel, kept him going gig to gig, town to town, generation to generation. It’s 2010 now and the man is still on the road, soon to be 83 with no quit in him.
“I get tired traveling sometimes, but so far so good, so we'll see how it works. Nobody has the traveling thing down, there's always variables traveling. I travel with my music books and I pick up rhythm sections around in different places and I know people who've played with me, you know, sometimes for forty years. I go with my music books and that's about it and usually it works out real good. I don’t say much to the audience. I figure the music says something to the audience. The audience, they feel all different things in a performance. I just try to get myself going and try to get the music going. You never know how it's going to go. Sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's hard. You’ve got to get yourself going first.”
People talk about Mose Allison with a certain snap to the discussion. They quote his lyrics chapter and verse. There are always stories about when people first heard Allison, his distinctive voice, his phrasing, his sharp, witty lyric. His lyrical turns zing us, tells something we might have missed about ourselves or our world, something obvious, something right there. That’s what an artist does. Hey, look at this, look at this again, turn this thing upside. Now what do you see?
‘When push comes to shove, thank God for self
love . . .’
‘Everybody's crying mercy, when they don’t know the meaning of the word . . .’
‘I’ve been sitting around thinking about ultimate knowledge and such
The smartest man in the whole round world really don't know that much.’
‘You don't like this little song I'm singin', just grin and bear it.
All I can say is, if the shoe fits, wear it.’
'anyway . .‘It’s just as well the world ended, it wasn’t working
Irony, wit and sometimes just an outright joke, all find a home in the heart of Allison’s distinctive voice. When a man does this, goes on the road singing and is still on the road singing and playing sixty years later, people showing up, listening, laughing, participating, when that happens one might think something important is going on. Allison doesn’t quite see it that way.
“I have the sense that I'm not important at all sometimes. I've been doing the same kind of songs for years and it has to do with your attitude, I think, in every way. What makes you think about something is determined by your attitude and nobody knows where that comes from. Attitude takes in everything you're likely to express yourself with.”
There’s a working man’s attitude to Mose Allison. He shows up and plays his songs, no fuss, no bother, gets the job done, year after year, a million miles and a million nights of observations, stories, characters, romance, and heartbreak. Songs infused with a simple humanity and ultimately, an abiding humility.
Some folks take a long journey to uncover their place in the world. Others know it from the start, see it, feel it and do it. Mose Allsion lives his life like the rest of us, he just does it measure for measure with a pile of songs, working it out as he goes along.
“It works out in the doing. Every time you do it, it's different. I think the songs are pertinent. I don’t have any trouble doing songs that I've been doing for years. The meaning very seldom changes. I start out writing for essentials, you know, I've always written songs that I figured were essential and what's essential never changes.”