Listening to Mose Allison’s music properly is an exercise in alertness. He draws on jazz, R&B, and country music to come up with his sound. Lyrically, he has the intellectual flair of a beat poet and satirist combined. His voice sounds southern, hip, and uncomplicated.
Allison has fans around the world, but in Britain it was rock bands that first embraced his satirical music. Over the years, his songs have been recorded by the Yardbirds, John Mayall, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Robert Palmer, Eric Clapton, Brian Auger, the Who, and Van Morrison. In North America you can find versions of his songs by Diana Krall, Colin James, Johnny Winter, the Kingston Trio, John Hammond, and Bonnie Raitt.
There are many influences in Allison’s playing: bluesman Percy Mayfield figures prominently; there is even a hint of Muddy Waters, Tampa Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Not surprisingly, some of his new fans, without seeing him, assume he is black. In the 1960s, while he was playing Chicago, Jet magazine tracked him down and proposed doing a story on him. Allison explained to the writer there was something the magazine should know.
Allison and his trio first played instrumental music, but lyrics quickly found their way into his repertoire. He has said that for every person who understands music there are five hundred who understand words. His lyrics have a kind of southern pessimism and yet a strong understanding of the human condition. An irony, if you will.
Allison Wonderland [Rhino #71689] is a career-defining double-CD retrospective. There are forty-six songs from five different labels spanning the years from 1957 to 1991.
Allison’s best-known song, “Back Country Blues” (a.k.a. “Young Man’s Blues”), is a scathing, timeless piece about oppression and lack of opportunity in an older person’s world. The Who turned it into a youth anthem when the song appeared on their Live at Leeds album. Allison recorded it in 1957, and it appeared on his first album, Back Country Suite for Piano, Bass and Drums.
Another song from 1957 is “Parchman Farm,” a bit of fiction about being imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, which Allison lived near as a child. It is a tongue-in-cheek song Allison seldom performs today because of its unfortunate gag line, “All I did was shoot my wife.”
“Your Mind Is on Vacation” is Allison’s second best-known song. He has recorded it several times, but this version from 1962 is the original. It was written as a put-down of smug know-it-alls. Allison decided it was a good song when he realized it applied to him.
“Stop This World” is a perfect example of Allison at his darkest and most despondent. The unflinching honesty of this song made it a favourite of many performers after 9/11.
“Top 40” is Allison’s scornful and biting look at the recording industry and its formula for success. As he puts it, all you need is a dynamite, freaked-out, solid-gold, top-forty, big-beat, rock-and-roll record.
His music is often thought of as being comical. It certainly has humourous ingredients, but it is also very profound. With forty-seven songs on this retrospective, Allison’s one-two punch on the world is felt strongly. His songs have a poignancy and substance that will keep them relevant for years to come.