[Mose Allison. Source for photo.]
A casual listener of Mose Allison’s music may not immediately discern his race.
It may be a point of interest. You may jump to conclusions after listening to his debut album from 1957, Back Country Suite. Plenty of people have assumed Mose Allison to be black because he played the blues, but, in fact, Allison was a white man, born on his grandfather’s farm in the Mississippi Delta.
Does his race matter? Yes and no. For Allison (and anyone should agree) his whiteness protected him while growing up in Mississippi, joining the army and eventually making a living with the blues in New York. He benefitted from his race–so what gives him the right to sing the blues?
An article from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism asks the same question. The article, “Race, Ethnicity, Expressive Authenticity: Can White People Sing the Blues?” written by Joel Rudinow, raises questions of authenticity and ownership of the blues, which I won’t reproduce here in full. Rudinow ends the article with an almost call to action, saying that the blues need to be allowed to evolve.
This kind of “blues purism” is no way to keep the blues alive either. The blues, like any oral tradition, remains alive to the extent that it continues to evolve and things continue to “grow out of it.”
It’s clear: the author of the article had his own biases when it came to white blues performers. Although the article was written in the 1990s, it presented an interesting point of discussion about race and authenticity in music that still needs to be going on–a discussion that clearly I am not qualified to lead but that I would gladly glean from.
Back Country Suite is a short album. Even though the whole tracklist is a little over 30 minutes long, the amalgamation of the blues, jazz and bebop is apparent from the first chord Allison plays in “New Ground.” Listen to “Blues (Young Man)” to hear Allison’s quintessential, almost feminine, southern, bluesy drawl.
Recorded with Prestige records in Hackensack, New Jersey, the album never peaked on the charts, but Allison went on to influence dozens of musicians from Eric Clapton, The Who, The Yardbirds, Belle and Sebastian and others. Allison’s work began with Back Country Suite, but it didn’t stop there.
Here’s what MOJO says:
Though he’s never made a poor record in his life, Back Country Suite remains Allison’s most potent work….[It] proved the ideal calling card, and he’s always found work easy to come by.
Because musicians of color rarely have the opportunity to be separated from their heritages and backgrounds, Allison shouldn’t be either. Recognize his race; recognize his talent. But most importantly, recognize the shoulders of those performers that he stood on.
Listen to the album here: