Everybody’s main man
Legendary hipster songwriter Mose Allison asks: How much truth can this world stand?
“How much truth can a world stand? / Left without its daydream / One of a million so it seems / Wondering how it all began / Threatened by the works of man / Destined for the frying pan / How much truth can a world stand?”
Perfect melancholy from one of the most wry songwriters in American music, but this man always has been a sublime contradiction. For the past 50 years, his uptown jazz-bop piano and down-home country-blues storytelling have been instantly recognizable. He is Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Pete Townsend’s main-est man. He is Mose Allison, 70-something now and hipper than anyone, even back in the 1950s when he and a “small movement” of musicians started indigenously blending country blues with jazz.
“Others did it, not just me. I just used what I had grown up with,” Allison said, in an entrancing but self-effacing, laconic Tippo, Miss., drawl. “Fifty years with no technique” he chuckled. “Any category you put me in is not gonna be enough.”
When Allison was inducted into the Mississippi Hall of Fame, he said, “Growing up in Mississippi, I probably heard more different kinds of music than I could have heard anywhere else in the world; the speech patterns that I picked up, with all the aphorisms and so forth, the understatement and exaggeration—I just grew up with that.”
It’s true. It is a Southerner’s secret handshake. Northerners will always be confounded, just like the critics were back in the day. “The first 20 years, they all misinterpreted it. They all thought I was cynical, you know? They didn’t get it. A lot of things I used to be called a cynic for, now they laughin’ their heads off.
“You never get anything straight down in the South,” Allison continued. “Nobody ever comes out and says anything straight to your face. It is always exaggerated, or there is always understatement. I always think that it had something to do with farmers—being so reliant on the weather, they develop an ironic stoicism.” No wonder, then, that the Brits, gentlemen farmers, makers of the driest humor and stoic to a fault, adore him.
A few Allison gems: “I’ve been doing some thinking about the nature of the universe / Found out things are getting better, its just people that are getting worse,” from “Just Like Livin’.” “Your molecular structure is really something swell / a high frequency modulated jezebel / Thermodynamically, you’re getting to me,” from “Your Molecular Structure.” And everyone knows “Your Mind Is on Vacation (but Your Mouth Is Workin’ Overtime).”
But Allison’s not all lyrics. He is nearly completely self-taught on piano. After he found that he could pick out tunes by ear, he lost interest in learning to read music. “I tell people my style derives completely from the two pieces I had to learn in school,” he said, chuckling—“'Indian War Dance’ and ‘Country Gardens.’” More avant-garde is his love of Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg. After college at Louisiana State University and an Army stint, Allison realized that the work was in Manhattan. In 1956, with his style fully formed, he began playing with jazz stars Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. Beginning with the legendary Back Country Suites (1957) he recorded more than 30 albums for the Prestige, Atlantic and Blue Note labels, including his recent Grammy-winning CD, The Mose Chronicles, Live in London, Volume 1.
“I am not anxious to do a record for a while; most of my ideas I get nowadays are so absurd I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them or not.” But, irrepressible, he erupts. “You know Willie Dixon wrote that Little Walter hit, ‘My Babe’? I was thinking of doing an alternate lyric called ‘My Brain.’ I’ve been reading a book about how the brain works.”
“My brain is always chicken / Long as I am live and kickin’ / My brain. My brain is steady workin’ / Long as you keep that coffee perkin’ / My brain.”
Go, Mose, go.