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Slayton: Missing Mose

In the year just past, we lost some wonderful, talented musicians and singers: Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Leon Russell and several others. But the one closest to my heart was Mose Allison, who died last November 16 at age 89.

He’s one of those indefinable musicians who transcend categories: was he a blues singer who played the piano? Yes, but that doesn’t encompass either his musical wit or the subtle complexity of his music. Was he a jazz pianist? Yes, but that doesn’t account for the bittersweet lyrics and musical appeal of songs like “Swingin’ Machine ” and “Ask Me Nice”.

Allison bridged Delta blues and modern jazz, but it’s not every day in either blues or jazz that a startling line like “Your mind is on vacation, but your mouth is workin’ overtime” can make you laugh out loud.

In short, like many fine artists, Allison is hard to categorize. His bluesy, southern-tinted singing style made many listeners think he was black. That made Allison, a white guy from Mississippi, laugh. He wan’t imitating anybody; he came by his accent naturally.

One thread reliably woven through his work is irony. (He once said, “I have a PhD in irony.”) Consider, for example his song, “I don’t want much,” in which Allison declares:

I don't want much in this world
It's the simple things I treasure
'Till I die I would get by on fame, riches and sensual pleasure

Or his widely known song, “ Everybody Cryin’ Mercy,” which contains the memorable line, “Everybody’s cryin’ ‘peace on earth — just as soon as we win this war’…”

He usually played with small combos, singing in a syncopated call-and-response style accompanying himself on the piano, which commented musically on the lyrics. But his playing, underneath its easy, popular appeal, often used gutsy 9th and diminished 7th chords to embellish the lines of the song. His improvisations were unfailingly tasty, restrained, and musical.

One of his songs I’ve especially been drawn to recently, perhaps because of the political situation, perhaps just because it’s January, is a blues that says it all: “I don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cause I know nothing’s gonna be all right.”

We’ll miss Mose Allison. He saw through hypocrisy and evil with a sense of humor, and had a great time poking fun at our naughty world. That’s a form of courage — something we may need in the days ahead.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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