Tag Archives: mississippi

Mose Allison: Straight, No Chaser

Everybody quiet down for a second please. Turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys, logoff your Facebook and Twitter pages, hold that blog post, fold that laptop, stop and listen: The great Mose Allison has a new album out. Coaxed back into the studio by producer Joe Henry, the 82-year-old jazz pianist songwriting legend has recorded his first collection in ten years. Ten years! In this insufferably long moment of constant communication—all of us in love with the sound of our own digital voices, blathering our status every ten seconds—a stretch of silence like that is positively heroic. What could be a more appropriate response to a babbling world than keeping quiet, and who better than Mose Allison to deliver it? This is after all the man who wrote the 1976 classic “Your Mind is on Vacation”: “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime / Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”

It’s great to have Allison back, though, no matter how hard Henry had to drag him. Especially since The Way of the World, the sparse and spacious gem of a record, released March 23 on ANTI-, sounds just like a Mose Allison record. And bless Allison, Henry and ANTI- alike for resisting the pressure or temptation to have it any other way. The result is an album that, song after song, makes you shake your head and think, “Remember when music sounded like this?”

Allison surely does. In fact, he is one of the reasons it did. Since his first record in 1957, Allison has drawn from the music that surrounded him growing up in Tippo, Mississippi to weave a thread that connects American music from Delta blues through bebop to rock and roll. A widely and wildly influential songwriter, Allison has been covered and cited by everyone from the Who to the Yardbirds to Blue Cheer to the Clash to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to Ray Davies to the Pixies. There is something astounding about Allison’s ability to make plain the absurdity, frailty and insanity often referred to as being human in just a few lines of blues.

The Way of the World is no exception. If anything, time has sharpened Allison’s fascination and bemusement. He gives it to you straight, no chaser. With that great laconic deadpan, Allison effortlessly drawls lines like, “I know you didn’t mean it when you stole my coat / It just happened to be the logical one / I know you didn’t mean it when you slit my throat / You was just out with the fellas trying to have some fun.” He then mumbles and hums along just off mic as he delivers a swinging, delicate, improvised solo that recalls Thelonius Monk and Charles Brown. He follows it with the lines, “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up / You just happened to think it was a good idea / Ungrateful people tried to interrupt when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.”

Now that is something you don’t hear every day. Allison gives it to mankind right in the kisser like nobody else. But on a song like “I’m All Right,” he turns his attention closer to home with an intimacy carried by the kind of mundane, specific details most songwriters overlook. Did he just say “tube socks”? Was that “dental floss”? Right and real and strange, Allison’s heartbreak doesn’t traffic in clichés, instead chronicling the small things it actually takes to get through a day. The songs on The Way of the World are so efficiently and precisely written and produced, and so sympathetically accompanied by the musicians Henry has assembled, that it all seems to work. As the time between records, his vocal delivery and his playing show, Mose Allison is no hurry. It’s beautiful. Listening to him helps you slow down a little too. Like all of Mose Allison’s brilliant records, The Way of the World is the sound of a truly great artist coolly wrestling some semblance of sense into the world around him. Allison is so good he makes it sound like it’s no big deal. Just an old genius breaking the silence with music.

–Ari Surdoval


John Lee Hooker Never Looked Back

John Lee Hooker grew up deep in the Mississippi apartheid of the ’20s, sharecropping, dreaming by the old Victrola, picking up KFFA from Helena on his family’s crackling crystal radio. He stuttered when he talked, but his voice could fill a church when he sang. He got his first guitar from a traveling salesman, but his father called it the devil and only let him play it in the barn behind the house.

Charley Patton was everywhere, whooping and whispering of dark roads and high water, popping and hissing on thick black 78s. Same goes for Son House, his slicing, metallic slide echoing from juke joints throughout the Delta. You can hear Patton and House—and the doomed, haunted cries of Robert Johnson—drifting through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but you won’t find them in John Lee. Hooker’s one-chord boogie is only a degree removed from Africa. Its lonesome, stumbling rhythm snaked up through Texas and Louisiana, through the brutal blues of Robert Pete Williams and Blind Lemon Jefferson, clear to the hills of North Mississippi, where Hooker learned it from a guitar-playing stepfather, and where it lives to this day in the children of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. From Senegal to Senatobia.

Hooker learned his blues and held fast. He never caved, never swayed to a citified 13th chord, a sliding 9th, or even a slide. Hooker knew what he had from the moment he found it out in the barn, on the rusted strings of the salesman’s cheap guitar. He used his blues to flee Mississippi, in the great postwar migration out of the South’s hopelessness, to the grinding, industrial powerhouse of Detroit. “There was nothin’ there,” Hooker said of Mississippi, much later in his life. “And there still ain’t nothin’ there.”

Hooker chose Detroit over Chicago to dodge the competition, and ironically wound up fighting for gigs against T-Bone Walker, who had landed in Detroit as well. Surprisingly, Hooker loved Walker, the consummate, uptown guitar-hero blues showman. “I idolized him like I did God,” Hooker said. “I followed him around like a puppy after a bone, and he got to know me, so sometimes he would let me pick up his guitar and play some.” Even in the shadow of Walker—a superstar of the blues, a profound influence on Chuck Berry and countless others—Hooker stayed true to the sound he carried up from Mississippi.

In Detroit, Hooker was discovered fronting a small combo at the Apex Bar, and got booked for a cheap recording session at Pan American studios. He cut four songs quickly–the last one was “Boogie Chillen.”

“Boogie Chillen” struck like lightning—perfectly capturing the excitement, hope, and trepidation of the millions of black Southerners who found themselves in the strange, cold North, immigrants in their own country. It was the electrified sound of the South, but the story was pure Detroit: When I first come to town people, I was walking down Hastings Street / I heard everybody talking about Henry’s Swing Club / I decided I’d drop in there that night / And when I got there, I said, yes people / They was really having a ball.

“Boogie Chillen” is the sound of a man alone, far from home, holding on to and letting go of everything he knows. Hooker stomps his foot to keep time, and a hollowbody electric is his sole, perfect accompaniment—not as open and spacious as the acoustic Houston blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, not as clipped and snarling as the grinding solidbodies that would soon power the new Chicago blues. Acoustic and electric, past and future, hill country and Black Bottom, hope and heartbreak, the murderous, futureless Southern countryside and the brutal, ruthless streets of the North. “Boogie Chillen” is all of this, but it is a celebration—a defiant reminder that this music is not about getting into the blues. It is about getting out of them. And I felt so good / I was boogiein’ just the same, oh Lord.

Hooker was working as a janitor when “Boogie Chillen” exploded, selling a million copies in the blink of an eye. Just like Patton in the Delta a generation earlier, John Lee’s voice was everywhere. Well my momma she didn’t allow me just to stay out all night long, oh Lord…. “Everywhere you went, that was all you’d hear coming out of windows and stores and the neighbors’ houses,” Hooker recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t need this broom. I can make it on my own.’ And I never looked back.”

-Ari Surdoval

John Lee Hooker performs “Boom Boom” on some television show in 1966.