The Guardian: Twenty-Six Siblings and a Child Labour Camp: How Lonnie Holley’s Epic Life Led to the Year’s Best Album

October 5, 2018

Rebecca Bengal

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Twenty-Six Siblings and a Child Labour Camp: How Lonnie Holley’s Epic Life Led to the Year’s Best Album
By: Rebecca Bengal

First,” says Lonnie Holley, “let’s tell the audience who we are.” The two of us are alone in his studio, the night before he is due to perform at the Atlanta Symphony Hall. He continues in an endearingly formal tone: “I’m Lonnie Holley, Sr, an African-American artist living in Atlanta, born in Birmingham, Alabama, and doing art and music here.”

Before Holley’s performances, his manager and collaborator Matt Arnett often introduces Holley’s life story, with its true but unfathomable details; a story that could have been plotted by Mark Twain. It has the elements of a classic blues song, and his staggeringly beautiful new album MITH is one of the ultimate jazz and blues records, turning the music he has absorbed over a lifetime into something cosmic.

Holley is 68, and he didn’t begin recording songs until around 2010, when he fixed up his thrifted Casio keyboard. Before that, he was creating sculptures from salvaged materials, his art now housed at the Smithsonian Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House. But he was singing all along. “Growing up in a juke joint,” he says, “near the racetrack, near the fairground, near the creek, there was always an infeed of sound.”

Holley is indeed the seventh of 27 children. When he was one and a half, his mother left him with a babysitter, apparently unaware that his new caretaker, a burlesque dancer, would take the child with her as she toured the country. Holley remembers being passed among dancers between shows. Arriving back in Alabama, the dancer delivered him to his next foster parent, a liquor store owner named Mr McElroy (Holley says he was traded for a bottle of whiskey). Called Tonky (short for honky-tonk), Holley lived a childhood that was solitary to the point of bewilderment. He wandered the ditches of a nearby creek; he rigged up speakers to a neighbouring drive-in theatre and climbed on the McElroys’ roof to watch movies. He didn’t know his real name or see his birth family for years. When he was seven, Holley was left alone for two weeks with an ailing Mrs McElroy, bringing her food and water as she grew sicker. To this day, “I try to grab the day she died, because I didn’t know it when it happened,” he says. “Was it the day she stopped eating?” He only remembers the violent beating Mr McElroy gave him when he returned after an absence of many days, discovered his wife was dead, and blamed Holley for it.

Later, he ran away from McElroy’s house, was struck by a car and dragged underneath it for two and a half blocks. “It put me in a coma,” he says. “My brain stopped functioning.” It didn’t kill him, though, and it didn’t return him to his mother. At nine, Holley lifted a quilt off a clothesline and hopped a train in the hopes of finding her. His blanket sooty with exhaust fumes, he wound up in New Orleans – there were many more sounds to absorb there – where he spent a stint helping on a delivery wagon until the authorities figured out where he was from and returned him to Alabama. Then came the field songs he sang while picking cotton, incarcerated with other children at the notorious juvenile labour camp, Mt Meigs, then also known as the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, whose inhumane conditions were documented in Denny Abbott’s book They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama’s Forgotten Children. “Let’s call it what it is: a slave camp,” Holley says. “There was no school. We worked from sunup to sundown.” Once, Arnett tells me, he took Holley to the Meigs site, and as they approached one of the buildings, “Lonnie grabbed my arm and I could feel his whole body shaking in fear”.

The sounds that formed him, growing up, included the gospel he heard at church, when he was briefly reunited with his biological family after his grandmother heard he had been seen at Meigs. Enter an even stranger music: Holley took a job at Disney World and moved in with a brother in Florida. At his next family reunion in Alabama, he was dismayed to discover his mother living in the kind of poverty that, he says, might have existed in the 1800s. Yet when he shows me a photo of a photo of her, taken on his phone (the original has been lost), he says: “She wasn’t some downtrodden negro woman. Dorothy May Holley Crawford! She was an intelligent, sophisticated-for-her-times kind of person.” He zooms in. “You can see how she kept herself up.” Some of Holley’s biggest musical influences date back to these formative years. He loves Motown; often he falls asleep listening to Martha and the Vandellas. In lyrics and conversation, he frequently quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.

On MITH, Holley connects all these threads into an affirmation of African-American might: “They kidnapped us and brought us here,” he says, of the song I Snuck Off the Slave Ship, “and they never thought we would blossom into something so big they couldn’t contain.” I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America, the album’s first single, is at turns bombastic, elegiac and full of foreboding, its trombone sounding like a warning foghorn. “Why are we going backwards when we are supposed to be a leading nation?” he says in his studio. “We are playing in the quicksand fields of stupidity! Playing in the playground of foolishness! We should have technical advances where we aren’t hurting humans. We should be emptying out prisons.”

Recorded with his collaborators Nelson Patton and Shahzad Ismaily, with contributions by Laraaji and the late Richard Swift, the title, MITH, nods to myth and is short for smith – brainsmithing and wordsmithing pop up frequently in his conversation. It’s part of what Holley, who left school after seventh grade and taught himself to read, calls his “Lonnie Hollification” of language: “I think I have to work on words,” he says, “to make them different than what they appear to be, to their betterment.” He paraphrases lyrics from another song from MITH, I’m a Suspect: “I’m a suspect and I’ll be suspect till I die; then I’ll be a dust speck. That’s a very simple song for people to understand. It’s not any harsher than I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America.”

A video shoot for Sometimes I Wanna Dance, the second single from MITH, is well underway when I first arrive in Holley’s Lakewood Heights studios on a Sunday afternoon in July. It’s like stumbling into an anachronistic and uplifting dance party populated by blues and soul legends (among them, the Ink Spots piano player Eddie Tigner, then just shy of 92), a stylish crowd of locals (including bright young rapper Nesha Nycee, a Lonnie Holley fan), and senior citizen members of the Edeliegba dance ensemble, clad in long, colourful dresses, who choreograph a moving story of African-American bondage and collective healing.

Sometimes I Wanna Dance is the final song on the album, its most uptempo, cathartic and hopeful; a celebratory welcome for a mythic hero after a long, arduous odyssey. The video is set against the backdrop of a vacant storefront, convincingly dressed up as Tonky’s Rocket Ship, a fictive version of the juke joint of Holley’s childhood. Holley wanders tall and dreamlike among the throng, grey hair creeping into his short dreads, glasses sliding up his forehead, an image of a rainbow streaming from a third eye on the back of his shirt.

How did it feel to retread that part of his life, I ask the next day, as we sit in the darkened calm of the video set. Holley considers. “A lot of times I don’t like to get too emotionally involved because I can easily go back to some points in my brain that can make me boo-hoo and throw down some tears, but yesterday was more like a rejoicing period,” he says. “This is where you are, you have reached this point. Rejoice! And rejoice with the rejoicers!”

A genuine largeness of spirit emanates from Holley. Spend time with him and it’s impossible not to feel like the mood ring that starts to spontaneously flash on his finger one night, when I see him perform in Brooklyn, surprising and delighting both him and the audience. He’d found it on the street. When I ask about religion, he gives a characteristic answer: “What would you call religion versus ‘interested in the humanities’? Am I a good humanitarian? Do I have to be a preacher to be so? Or do I have to be a human with a good curiosity to know the facts?’”

At noon one day, Holley and I sit sweating on the sidewalk outside his studio, as he begins the first of several mini-sculptures. Holley cuts the ribbon off a tiny white sock and wraps it over a vase. “I did that so the baby sock could continue to serve its purpose in the sculpture,” he says. “I took the truth out of Santa’s stocking and put it in that baby’s sock.” Arnett had told me that, on tour, “we end up coming home with multiple extra suitcases for all the things Lonnie picks up on the street”. In his studio, finished and unfinished pieces and materials hang from the ceiling and shelves that line the rose-coloured walls. As we linger on the pavement, Holley makes more small sculptures. The process seems to soothe him.

Holley’s first artwork was triggered by trauma. In 1979, one of his sisters was grieving her two children, who had died in a house fire; she was devastated that she couldn’t afford gravestones for them. Holley stepped in and carved them – “I thought I was just making baby tombstones,” he says – and saw what it meant to her. “I realised what art could do. It’s not just a beautification instrument.” He continued making sandstone carvings and other sculptures – assemblages of found objects: umbrellas, wire, pipe, old cameras, wood and animal skulls. The sculptures numbered in the hundreds, spreading over the hill where Holley lived, next to the Birmingham airport and into the woods, taking over neighbouring gardens and abandoned lots. Holley called it simply “the environment”.

He says he didn’t consider it art until another fire. “The firemen came and asked ‘Who’s the artist?’ and I didn’t understand the word artist,” Holley says. “I hadn’t yet gotten into a museum. I hadn’t yet got the letter that said: ‘Lonnie Holley, African American Artist.’ They said whoever did this is not an amateur. They said, who did this art and I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said who did this stuff, and I said I did.” Eventually, he met Bill Arnett, Matt’s father, an art historian and collector, who began to support and advocate Holley’s work. In 1981, his sculptures were exhibited at the Smithsonian; back in Birmingham, the environment continued to grow – covering two acres, by Holley’s estimate, before it was condemned and destroyed in the name of airport expansion. For him, this experience is as difficult to talk about as his childhood abuse. “I try not to think about it now,” he says.

Terms like “outsider” and “folk art” fall as short of describing Holley’s sculptures, like most attempts to pin him down to a musical genre. Holley’s songs get played on jazz and indie stations; he has toured or collaborated with Deerhunter, Bill Callahan, Jenny Hval, the War on Drugs; after his first record on the Dust-to-Digital label in 2013, Holley was compared to Sun Ra, though he had never heard of him. Ironically, Arnett says, if Holley hadn’t been incarcerated at Meigs, he and Sun Ra (née Herman Blount) could have attended the same high school. “Thumbs up to Mother Universe!” is Holley’s Sun Ra-esque signature greeting, sign-off, and handshake.

Holley works between three studios on one block, which include his living space; he also has a warehouse-size studio a short drive away. As we climb the flight of stairs, the first time I visit, I steel myself for a hoarder’s den, with no space to move and no furniture to sit on. Holley’s apartment is indeed filled to the brim, too many objects to inventory, but the space feels light and airy. I sit on a pile of clothes that feels like a stack of pillows. You build a little forest for yourself everywhere you go, I say, noticing the canopy of hanging sculptures strung from the ceiling in this room, and the bedroom. “I figure if anyone tries to break in, they’d just be confused by all this stuff,” Holley says, beginning to reshape a length of wire. The objects that surround make him feel safe, he says. “I make art to protect my art.”

He is not immune to the times: he makes videos on his phone (“My hellos to the universe”) or writes little ruminations on it that might wind up onstage – for Holley, no concert is the same, each performance is improvised. I suggest that the phone is like a digital sketchbook. “In a sense,” Holley considers. “In a sense, our diary. In a sense, our guide.”

His intonation triggers an unexpected response from his phone. Siri says – “I found ‘innocence’ on the web” – and Holley and I both jump, startled. “Innocence is our guide,” Siri repeats, sage and unapologetic.

Siri, I have to concede, is right. Holley has had harsher life experiences than almost anyone I’ve ever met, but his attitude towards art is open, free and innocent. “To get to the point of my life almost killing me, it became a lesson and I didn’t understand that as a human,” he says. “I didn’t understand my life as an example, as a human, an example of my mother’s 27 births. And you met THIS One! Lonnie Bradley Holley, Sr. And you haven’t seen the best of me. Because the best of me, some of it got buried. Duh. But again, the instrument is not destroyed. I’m the instrument. I’m the music.”

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