Lonnie Holley photo by David Raccuglia
Lonnie Holley: Who Am I? Who Am I?
A Big Ears Festival 2023 Artist Preview
“I got punished for not knowing what death was, and I got a whipping, and I didn’t know how to handle that, and I was sad.” Those are the words of a five year old boy, desperate to find ground that wouldn’t give way under his feet.
He was born on this day in 1950. He was the seventh of his mother’s 27 children, in rural central Alabama. He had been given away to (or simply taken by) a substitute mother, and she in turn bartered the little boy to a third couple for a bottle of whiskey.
The man in this couple was a violent alcoholic who left the house for days at a time. The woman was mostly bed-ridden, and the boy was told to put water and something to eat on a chair beside her bed if he ever left the house.
At some point, the woman’s illness overcame her and she closed her eyes for good. The little boy hadn’t met death before, so he continued to bring water and bread to the woman’s bedside for several days.
The man flew into a rage when he finally came home to find his dead wife, and he lit into the boy savagely. The child ran out of the house, grabbed the handle of his little wagon, and raced across the street… straight into the path of a car that couldn’t stop.
With two shattered arms and two shattered legs, the boy lingered in a coma for months. He awoke, eventually, to a new mode of living, on his own, scavenging what little he needed to survive, from roadsides, garbage dumps, abandoned dwellings and warehouses.
And that’s how one of the most important artists of our time began his journey. But really, the brutality of his adolescence was just beginning.
At eleven years old, little Lonnie Holley’s scavenging was seen by someone as theft. He was hounded for being out past curfew, and the waif was sent to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a place known by those incarcerated there as Mt. Meigs. Part reformatory, part concentration camp, part vision from Hell, it was a place of surpassing cruelty.
In this month set aside for facing, remembering, understanding and honoring the history of the African American people interwoven in our common culture, Lonnie Holley’s story makes you gasp for air. At Mt. Meigs, he was beaten in front of the other children, at a spot called the Morning Bench, until blood ran down his legs into his shoes.
How did this tortured child become what some describe as “a song that never stops singing”? How did this soul survive to become “a 24-hours-a-day art-making machine’?
The answer is as simple as those deceptively simple questions. God was with him.
If you step back and look at Lonnie Holley’s life now, at 73 years old, it’s as if Jesus had rolled back the stone, dusted himself off, and humbly lived among us as a living breathing family man for another 40 years, getting wiser, happier, and more approachable with every passing year.
There is a magical quality to the way everything Lonnie Holley touches with his hands turns into something that engages your eye. “Something becomes beautiful when you regard it.” Words tumble out of his mouth with a beguiling simplicity, cloaked in an accent as deep as the secretive cultural tornadoes that sweep out of the aboriginal Southland, the pre-agricultural, pre-Euro, pre-slavery, pre-everything Southland. And the quotes stay with you like Scripture.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few.”
“My art is for the mind, not for the wall.”
“I am the living example of the blues in America.”
“The Spirit gave me the power to do all this. I got my relatives’ mojo workin’ in me.”
A new film, a new podcast, and a new album have all arrived at this moment to celebrate Lonnie Holley’s birthday, and to pave the way for his 5-day residency at the Big Ears Festival. And they all reveal the same thing, take you to the same place.
Filmmaker George King’s documentary “Thumbs Up for Mother Universe” follows Lonnie Holley for more than 20 years, with the closest examination of an artist’s inner workings you will ever experience. You see Holley pick up a tangle of PVC fencing from a pile of trash, saying under his breath “It’s so nasty… It’s so beautiful,” and the next thing you know it’s hanging in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
Josie Duffy Rice’s 8–part podcast “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama School for Negro Children” should be a required course in every high school in this country. It takes you inside an institution that, incredibly, was started by an enslaved woman’s daughter and showed great promise early on, before it was drowned in the horrific racist venom that lay like copperheads in the mud wherever farmland and woodlands meet in Alabama. It’s etched into Lonnie Holley’s art through the deep scars across his back.
And then there is Lonnie Hollie’s new album Oh Me, Oh My. As if his environmental assemblages, his sandstone sculptures, his Alexander Calder-esque twisted wire creations, his Picasso-like optical illusions, and his monumental visions that would make Michelangelo’s jaw drop weren’t enough, Lonnie discovered his musical self six years ago. His 2018 debut album “MITH” was on every “Best Albums of the Year” list worth looking at.
“I play for hours and hours,” he explains in “Thumbs Up for Mother Universe,” “…and I cut the tape player on, doing layers of music like I was doing layers of sculpture.” Producer Jacknife Lee, who has made records with The Cure, Modest Mouse, and R.E.M., channeled Holley’s stream-of-consciousness flow into collaborations with more experienced recording artists in a process Holley calls “thoughtsmithing.” The result is “Oh Me, Oh My,” an 11-cut album that makes bluegrass masters, jazz greats, rock-n-roll giants, and Americana originals alike put down their instruments, take a seat, and absorbs the pure creativity that escapes so many of them.
I’ve wrestled with how to describe the place Lonnie’s thoughts take me to, whether they are expressed visually, verbally, or in his music, which has the same improvised
right-before-your-eyes quality of everything he touches… but it’s like being a fly on the wall, out in the Cosmos, looking over God’s shoulder as He looms out there all alone, wondering what to do next. With intention that never wanders and creativity that never quits, the Creator touches gravel and it becomes diamonds. In similar fashion, this aging genius survived an unimaginably bleak childhood, adolescence and teen years of poverty, and decades of adulthood that would crush most people by being (lower case “c”) the creator.
Lonnie Holley’s creativity is now preserved in many of the world’s great museums. And he will be in Knoxville March 25 through the 29th to kick-off the Big Ears Festival. If you want to understand what Big Ears means, come experience Lonnie Holley’s art and music.
Ashley Capps says “We bring the world to Knoxville,” to explain the reason behind Big Ears. But first, Big Ears brings America to Knoxville, and Lonnie Holley is the perfect example of that. Capps and Big Ears bring the very best of America together in one place, at this beautiful bend in the Tennessee River, under the everlasting gaze of the Smoky Mountains, and the world comes to see what we are really all about.
Oh me, oh my, / Humans, please listen / Because sometimes it’s all right / To wonder a little deeper / I suggest you all go as deep as you can / Because I believe the deeper we go / The more chances there are / For us to understand / Understand the Oh Me’s / And understand the Oh My’s / Oh me, oh my.
Sometimes, I sit alone in the corner / As tears roll down from my eyes / I let ‘em fall, I let ‘em fall / I will let them fall / Oh me, oh my. / Every now and then we get a chance / To show our abilities. / I remember when I was a little bitty boy / There was this song… / “Lift Every Voice and Sing” / As we grow, we learn each other / More and more and more. / We learn how precious life is / And the Oh Me’s and the Oh My’s / Turns into the Oh Us / Oh us, Oh us.
Find music and more information about Lonnie Holley here: https://www.lonnieholley.com
Lonnie Holley’s birthday is Feb 10th. Filmmaker George King and the Atlanta-based globally-engaged non-profit Art Press, supporters of the art and culture of the American South, are celebrating by making George’s documentary about Lonnie Holley available online from Feb 10th through Feb 19th. And on Feb 19th, they will host a live-streamed Q+A with Lonnie Holley.
To join the party and see “Thumbs Up for Mother Universe,” go to https://watch.showandtell.film/watch/thumbs-up for complete information and tickets.