Mose's Better Blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

Allison retains his Delta drawl and Southern sensibility--even after raising four children, all now in their 30s, in Smithtown; even after being married to Audre, who hails from St. Louis, for 48 years. He's one of the last blues musicians who picked cotton as a youth, and that stays forever.

"The word memes just got coined a few years ago." He refers to another of his science books, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, by Richard Dawkins. "Genes are biological, the stuff in our physical makeup that has to do with how we're born. Memes are what we pick up culturally. There are scientists who say memes is not a valid term. But I think you pick up stuff from the culture you're born and raised into. The idioms you pick up, your thinking."

"The William Faulkner of Jazz" is a cheap compliment often leveled at Allison, simply because both men hail from Mississippi. Yet they look like brothers. We tour his living room, where paintings from friends hang: cowboy etchings, a painting of blue bulls, a portrait of Albert Schweitzer. A painting of Allison done by an El Paso artist depicts him with no eyes, looking like a blind man--a blind man who sees everything. One painting was done by an artist who never saw Allison's band, but did his impression of the rhythm section just from listening to the album. "He got the drummer uncannily right."

With each shingle in place on this house, it is a monument to stability. Allison is a suburban country squire. In the garage, every single garden tool, including Mose Allison's lawnmower, is perfectly hung in its place on the wall. Can this really be the residence of the Sage of Tippo? Or a staged setup at some straight friend's place? It's like discovering Miles Davis in Scarsdale, a PTA member in good standing with a golf club membership and a wife in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Even so, this stable homebody still averages 130 road dates a year. In the '70s, he was doing 200 nights a year; most were one-night stands, which can drain a man. "I try to limit the one-nighters now and try to get as many weekend or three-night clubs," he says. And being a musician's musician, Allison has always relied on other musicians to spread his gospel. "Other musicians have helped me to survive. The rock 'n' rollers who've done my stuff over the years have brought in new audiences."

He claims to have never heard of the Cactus or Johnny Winter versions of "Parchman Farm," perhaps his most covered song. The Who did "Young Man Blues" on 1970's Live at Leeds, something you imagine made Mose Allison hold his ears in horror--yet it was impossible not to appreciate the recognition and the initial $7,000 royalty check. Edgar Winter's debut album from 1971, Entrance, had uncanny Mose Allison-like vocals. And artists from the Kingston Trio ("Parchman Farm") to the Clash ("Look Here") have covered his songs, though not always giving the credit--or the money--owed him.

"People are always tellin' me, you know, so-and-so did such-and-such," he says. "I'm the last person to find out about it. I always say, 'Man, I don't care what you do with my material, just as long as you give me credit.'"

Allison was once angered by a British interviewer's question about how he "stole the blues." Then he got hip to the blues police, and wrote the leadoff song on My Backyard, "Ever Since I Stole the Blues."

"I'm not even concerned with that anymore," he shrugs. "I just do my work. I don't care what people call what I do, if they don't wanna call it blues or jazz. My whole thing is gettin' to the gig, playin' the gig, and gettin' home."

Mose Allison is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, December 1, and Wednesday, December 2, at Timothy's. Showtimes are 7 and 9:30 p.m.

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