Sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, on a trip to London, we were lucky to see Mose Allison perform a set at the Pizza Express which included such characteristically witty and sardonic songs, rooted in the blues, as Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy,  I Love The Life I Live (I Live The Life I Love), Gettin’ There, Tell Me Somethin’, and Your Mind Is On Vacation.

Today, in his Guardian obituary of Mose Allison, who has died aged 89, John Fordham writes:

At the PizzaExpress jazz club in London, which he took to visiting twice a year in the 90s and early 2000s, Allison would sometimes seem to be in a fascinating private reverie, in which stomping bluesy figures would wrestle with swirling, wind-in-trees melodies, or turn into a jerky clatter like a silent-movie soundtrack. Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues, Trouble in Mind and Knock on Wood might hurtle by in a blur.

‘Pizza Express has been a real godsend for me,’ Allison once said. ‘I’ve been working there for several years, six weeks a year. You can go to work every night and play. It’s a nice little club. It’s just about the right size for me, about 150 people.’

In his obituary, John Fordham continues:

Rarely pausing for banter or biographical musings about himself or his heroes, the spare, faintly donnish Allison would clatter into the opening of a song when the last syllable of its namecheck was barely out of his mouth. The restless urban urgency of his methods brought a modernity (via bebop) to the earthy materials of the Delta, and a sophisticated irony to the direct and often accusatory themes of the blues.

The songs which Mose Allison wrote earned him the title of the William Faulkner of Jazz – which is appropriate, given his origins. John Fordham explains:

Allison was born on his grandfather’s farm, near the village of Tippo, just inside the eastern rim of the Mississippi Delta. His father took over the business, and his mother taught at the local school – a connection that gave the boy a lifelong love of literature that significantly influenced his resources as a songwriter. Allison’s father was a good stride-style pianist and, at the age of five, the boy was sent for formal piano lessons. But it was the blues, boogie-woogie music and jazz he heard on the jukeboxes that really turned his head.

In a predominantly black corner of the US’s cotton-farming country in the 1930s, Allison recollected that 60% of the jukebox fare would be country blues, and the remainder the big-band bravura of Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey – and he loved both. A gifted natural improviser, he was also attracted to the trumpet by the music of Louis Armstrong, studying the instrument in high school and performing with it in local marching bands and dance bands.

Mose Allison at Pizza Express
Mose Allison at Pizza Express

I guess the first song I heard of Mose Allison’s was Parchman Farm, covered by numerous British blues bands in the 1960s (and sung by Van Morrison, a longtime admirer of Allison’s work, at the Liverpool Phil last week). Another that made a huge impact on me was Everybody Cryin’ Mercy, when it was covered by Bonnie Raitt on her 1973 album Takin’ My Time:

I can’t believe the things I’m seeing
I wonder ’bout some things I’ve heard
Everybody’s crying Mercy
When they don’t know the meaning of the word

A bad enough situation
It’s sure enough getting worse
Everybody’s crying Justice
Just as long as it’s business first

People running ’round in circles
Don’t know what they’re headed for
Everybody’s crying Peace on Earth
Just as soon as we win this war

In an appreciation of Allison’s work, Don Heckman writes in the Los Angeles Times:

Allison’s best known songs include his most requested work, “Parchman Farm,” inspired by a Mississippi penitentiary. Allison ceased performing it, however, in the mid-’90s, in part because some critics decried it as “politically incorrect.” But Allison had his own reasons for leaving the song behind. “It’s not funny. I don’t do the cotton sack songs much anymore,” he told Nine-O-One Network magazine. “You go to the Mississippi Delta and there are no cotton sacks.”

“Everybody Cryin’ Mercy,” composed during the Vietnam War, was effectively revived by Allison during Operation Desert Storm and covered by Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello. The lyrics, as with so many other Allison songs, made their point with far-reaching universality: “Everybody cryin’ peace on earth, Just as soon as we win this war.”

Other Allison songs are equally expressive, often beginning with a laconic title such as “Your Mind Is on Vacation” (continuing with the lyric “and your mouth is working overtime”). “I Know You Didn’t Mean It” is a classic example of Allison’s dark humour: “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up/You just happened to think it was a good idea.”

Mose Allison in London in 1986
Mose Allison in London in 1986

You say the world is mad
You say that you’ve been had
You don’t like your part in the floor show
You say it’s all a bust
There’s no one you can trust
Well, tell me something I don’t know

It takes a lot to piss me off
But once I’m there, it’s hard to cool me down
Take as lot to piss me off
So why you want to go and do that now?

It takes a lot odf effort and time
To push me over that line
Take a lot to piss me off
But you’re gettin’ there

You’re sitting there yakkin’ right in my face
I guess I’m gonna have to put you in your place
Y’know if silence was golden
You couldn’t raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You’re quoting figures, you’re dropping names
You’re telling stories about the dames
You’re always laughin’ when things ain’t funny
You try to sound like you’re big money
If talk was criminal, you’d lead a life of crime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

Your molecular structure
Is really somethin’ fine,
A first-rate example of functional design,
Those cosmic undulations
Are steady comin’ thru,
Your molecular structure baby,
Me and you.

Your cellular organization
Is really something choice,
Electro-magnetism
About to make me lose my voice,
Got all my circuits open,
My system’s reading “go,”
Your cellular organization baby,
Stop the show.

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