Summer 2024 Issue

That Carousel of Thought:
Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley’s self-taught musical and artistic practice utilizes a strategy of salvage to recontextualize his past lives. His new album, Oh Me Oh My, is the latest rearticulation of this biography.

<p>Photo: David Raccuglia, courtesy the artist</p>

Photo: David Raccuglia, courtesy the artist

Photo: David Raccuglia, courtesy the artist

Lonnie Holley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, as the seventh of twenty-seven children, but was raised on the state fairground by a burlesque dancer. At four years old, he was traded to the proprietors of a whiskey house for a bottle of liquor, and at seven, having fled his adoptive home, he was struck by a car and spent months in a coma. At eleven he was incarcerated at the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, now known as Mount Meigs, where he endured years of physical and psychological torture.

Holley has spent the ensuing decades pushing this story through a self-taught musical and artistic practice, utilizing a strategy of salvage to recontextualize his past lives. His new album, Oh Me Oh My, is the latest rearticulation of this biography. As with his sculptures and paintings, which will be presented at Camden Art Centre, London, in July, it is neither denunciation nor denial. It is a unique and defiant demonstration of the way in which trauma is not grown away from, but grown through.

—Harry Thorne

HARRY THORNEBefore I was familiar with your visual art, Lonnie, I heard your music. Keeping a Record of It [2013] was the first album I came across; Just Before Music [2012] followed, then MITH [2018]. I’ve since come to consider all aspects of your practice—music, performance, sculpture, painting—as the same expression in different forms, but I’m curious whether you see a distinction?

LONNIE HOLLEYI am an African-American artist and an American artist but I also see myself as a universal artist. The art that I and some other African Americans have done in the South was about our living conditions—not only how we was living but why we was living. We were first looked at as property ourself: we never had that feel of freedom to say that we could do the things or say the things or sing the things we wanted to sing. Our lives were hidden behind the lyrics, hidden within the instruments that was being played. Because we had no other place to hide it. It was our sanctuary. It were where we went to be saved.

Lonnie Holley in his yard environment in Birmingham, Alabama, a two-acre site that was destroyed by the Birmingham Airport Authority in 1997 to make way for an airport expansion that never occurred. Photo: unknown, 1990s, courtesy the artist

With all of that understood, I see myself as a collector of information. I was raised like that. I was raised at state fairgrounds, being moved from woman to woman as they cared for me, because they was burlesque dancers and they had their times to come on stage. I was being passed from mother to mother—or should I say, lover to lover: those that loveded me. You could see me as a little boy learning all the bits and pieces, how fiction was put in place for all the movies, how fiction was put in place for every tent that was on the fairground.

I’m the seventh of my mother’s twenty-seven children out of thirty-two pregnancies. I’m considered to be her wild seed, the one that went wildly. Somebody took me away from her and they spread me to the world, wide. Worldwide. Not so much physically, but the intelligence. I was carried from state fairground to state fairground, from carnival to carnival. I was introduced to all of those things. I was learning. We were refused the right to learn, to read and write, but we was learning all the time. They could call us negroes with no sense or negroes with no emotions, no feelings. They could call us animals or creatures, whatever they wanted to call us. But we was humans with brains.

My grandmama explained it better. She said, “When you go into this church, you got to be still and listen in order to learn. You got to be still and listen.” The music allows us to listen. We don’t always need a monitor or a TV screen for music. We just need somewhere comfortable to relax and take in this information. I had that comfortability. I had the time to take in the information that I was receiving. And then it kind of, like, fermented. Fermented like a great wine.

Lonnie Holley performing at Max Watt’s, Melbourne, 2023. Photo: Jeremy King

HTYou were taking it in, consciously or otherwise. Sounds, settings, those who loved you. When did you start recording these experiences—preserving them? I read that you bought a Casio keyboard and a karaoke machine from a flea market in the 1980s.

LHI knew nothing about preserving. I had no money to buy no recorder, but for some reason I knew that I needed a recorder. I was doing so much, I was singing all day long while I was working. I was moaning and groaning like my grandmother and my grandpa and my mama. I was doing all this stuff—our peoples was always doing all of this stuff. Can you imagine if our peoples had a bodycam on from the time that they got off the slave ships until now? Can you imagine how much information that would have been?

Everything Midas touched, he turned it into gold. I turn it into information. That’s all I be trying to do is make peoples aware that you have on this planet everything that you need. But you have to break it down. You have to remake it. I call it relearning, reestablishing, redoing. Some people call it recycling. My mother recycled every bit of the food: she never threw anything away. She had too many children to throw something away. From a solid meal, she made it into a hash. And we still ate and slopped it and it was good.

HTThat idea of recycling, Lonnie, of demonstrating value in that which others discard, it’s so visible in your sculptures. It’s wire, a hose, furniture, charred wood. How does that apply to your music?

LHIn ’97 the Birmingham Airport Authority destroyed thousands and thousands of works of mine. They just buried it. The bulldozer with them big old claws went in and tore it all to pieces, like a big monster, it just went in and wrecked it all. It was almost like making it into a gumbo. And I had to realize that from trash it came, to trash it returned. From trash he picked it, and to trash it were torn down, torn to pieces because the City of Birmingham condemning the property.

Even on the plantation we was using our creativity. Every time that black pot was greased and it cooked up everything that we had to cook up in it, all the way down to making the cracklins or boiling down the tatter from the beef, the tatter sunk into the crevices of that cast-iron pot. It keep it greased. The grease was still there in the crevices, keeping it from rusting and rottening away. So the crevices was very important to our way of life. As a child I snuck into the sewer pipes, counting the little bitty tiny seeds that is being flushed down the drains also. That can what? Get caught up in the waste and grow, grow massive and burst out the sewer pipe.

Lonnie Holley performing with Nelson Patton at the Festival dei Due Mondi, Spoleto, Italy, 2023. Photo: Festival dei Due Mondi, Spoleto

HTSo it’s the same for your music and your art: it’s the discarded seed? The seed that grows from the sewer?

LHVery much. Because it’s coming from the same brain. It’s coming from the same production of thought.

HTCan I ask one more question about the past, Lonnie? There’s a story about the moment you realized that you were an artist: in 1979, you carved two gravestones for your niece and nephew, who had died in a housefire. Was there a similar moment of epiphany with your music?

LHIt was a little bit harder to conceive. When my niece and nephew had got burned up in that house fire, everybody was crying, even my mother was crying. Everybody that was living was crying. That was a very, very moody time to come into creativity, to discover that your creativity has been your growth. It was not until the 1980s that I got a true understanding of what music could do. I had already been experiencing music, how it soothes you, how it rocks you to sleep, how it alerts you and make you get up and make you want to move, make you want to groove.

After my nephew and my niece got burned up, another niece got burned up in a house fire. I made a song called “Fifth Child Burning,” and that’s where I got that material from. So it looked like each time that I did something or I sacrificed materials to do art for the sake of us living better as humanity, that’s where my blessings came from. They just kept pouring in. Not only did I get blessed to understand, “Okay, now you got to understand how to be appreciative for the wisdom that you have growing. How long are you going to be stupid, Lonnie Bradley Holley Sr.? How long will you need pity in this quicksand field of stupidity?” I also had to realize: no, I don’t need pity. I need work space. I need objects. I need material. I need places for identification. I was all over the place. I was doing nothing else, and then came my music. I found an old karaoke machine and an old keyboard and boxes of cassettes. I tore ’em apart and put them back together and I made them work.

HTWhen you held that karaoke machine, when you filled those tapes, what was it that you were recording? Can you recall the sounds of those years?

LHI think that’s what’s happening with me now. I think that’s what I’m retrieving. It was in me all the time. All I have to do is sit and retrieve it and utter it out, utter it out. And in the process of uttering it out, I am on that carousel of thought. I’m in that ocean of thought and I’m doing the very best that I can to put it in my net [laughs]. So I dive into that ocean of thought with my net and I retrieve as much as I can—not Internet, manternet. Man-to-net. That’s a whole new term. Nobody but you and I know about it. Man-to-net. I will bring it, that man-to-net. That’s powerful, isn’t it?

Lonnie Holley performing at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2023. Photo: Jeremy King

Am I not my father’s father, my mother’s father, my grandmother, my great-grandparents? Am I not a spokesperson? So why would I mislead them, just to find out I have misled myself?

Lonnie Holley

HTThat idea of retrieval is certainly powerful. It speaks to one’s ability to hold the past, to store it and protect it for a time when it’s needed again, when it can be learned from or exorcised. We all collect and contain, but the ability to extract, that must be the skill.

LHI want to go back to a pinpoint of what you just said: to exorcise. To exorcise, to exercise. Exercise mean to work out something, to allow yourself to work out. Exorcism mean to get something out of you that somebody else doesn’t even know is in you. They call for the high priest to come and do the exorcism on you. But do the high priest always bring a tape recorder to record what they have gotten out of you? My, my, my. . . . That’s where the title Oh Me Oh My come from. “What did just happen to me? Oh me, oh my, did that happen to me? Did that come out of me?”

We have to be realerted of what is possible if the spirit choose to use you. Have I not been as deep as I can go in the grave? Did I not put the tombstone in the grave with my niece and my nephew? Was that not an offering? Was I not making offerings to the spirit of death? “Death, you took ’em. Now, Death, I’m gonna tell on you. I’m going to tell every bit of how they was treated.”

HTThat declaration—“Death, I’m gonna tell on you”—it feels essential to this new record. More so than on previous albums, Oh Me Oh My has a narrative arc, but the beating heart of the record is “Mount Meigs.” Even though your experience at Mount Meigs juvenile corrections facility has been present in so much of your past work, this track feels like the most explicit recollection of that story to date. You reference abusive figures like Mr. Glover. You describe cruelty in excruciating detail. I wouldn’t ask you to again reflect on your time at the Alabama Industrial School if you weren’t comfortable doing so, but I’m interested in why you felt it was important to tell that story now in such a direct way.

Lonnie Holley, Hung Out III, 2020, wooden clothes rack, wooden pegs, and paper rifle targets, 56 ⅞ × 29 ¾ × 16 ½ inches (144.5 × 75.5 × 42 cm). Photo: courtesy Edel Assanti and BLUM © Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley, Memorial at Friendship Church, 2006, metal, found debris, plastic flowers, and ribbon, 38 × 31 × 27 inches (96.5 × 78.7 × 68.6 cm). Photo: John Bentham, courtesy Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston © Lonnie Holley

No matter where I go, I am a part of the wonder. To the depths of it or to the height of it.

Lonnie Holley

LHI’m not ever going to be ashamed to tell the truth about Death. Did I not whoop Death? I didn’t. Death whooped me. Did I almost get beat to death after being hit by a car and dragged up underneath that car for two and a half blocks and considered to be brain-dead? You laying up there at seven and a half years, seven and a half. Now you laying up there in Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at eleven after being beat, hit for 150 licks, knocked in the back of the head with an oily, greasy stick by a grown man. I had got knocked on this side of my head and knocked out. Knocked out by a white man that owned a tractor company. And on this other side of my head I had got knocked out by E. B. Holloway, the superintendent of Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. And on the morning bench, legs tied to the morning bench, Mr. Glover, an older man sitting on an oilcan with an oil-drenched white oak stick, beating me. My thighs and the back of my legs start swelling up and then after the first twenty-five licks, Mr. Glover took the stick and hit me in the back of the head and knocked me out again, busted my head open. How much do it take for a skull to crack and parts of the brain to come out of those little cracks? Remember we was talking about the sewer pipe and the roots busting the sewer pipe until they began to crack?

I still have bad dreams about it now. I have to rush out of my sleep every day. By the time I go deep into dreamland, I’m rushed right out of it. And then I get up and I start doing my art. I got thousands of pieces nobody would never see again. This is what a human can produce in care—in the care of more than just myself. I learnt to care about humans. I learnt to care about every one of those children that was there with me at Mount Meigs getting a whooping for not picking 50 pounds, 100 pounds, 200 pounds of cotton a day.

HTWhat is most astounding about what you just said, Lonnie, is that in spite of everything you’ve just recounted, you end your thought with care. And so often in your music, when there is pain, there is optimism. The track with Rokia Koné on Oh Me Oh My, it is so very tender. In the song with Jeff Parker, you sing of placing your hands on those of your ancestors. Is it difficult to maintain that balance? You live with so much. It must take a strong will to retain faith in hope.

Lonnie Holley, The Protector, 2022, acrylic, spray paint, oil stick, nails on quilt and quilt parts mounted on wood, 60 × 48 × 1 ½ inches (152.5 × 122 × 3.8 cm). Photo: courtesy Edel Assanti and BLUM © Lonnie Holley

LHI do all this because of being so thankful and grateful to my grandparents and my mother and my auntie begging me to save my life. “Stop doing this. Stop drinking. Stop running wild. Stop running crazy.” Because I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know how to process it. And I still don’t know how to process it because it’s so hurtful. I don’t know how to process. My grandmama helped dug the grave for three of those little kids; later I went to the cemetery to help her dig graves. I had been down so deep into the holes of wonder, the pit itself. The pit of death. The pit of death. I’m sorry about all the moodiness and getting all cried up. I can’t help that.

HTBut that’s precisely why your music is so powerful. Because even back in 2012, on Just Before Music, when your music was improvised, it all felt so raw. There was an honesty, an immediacy, as if the words were falling from your tongue. And even though this new record is more crafted, that honesty remains. So it is no surprise to me that this emotion is still present—it is the present-ness that makes your music so powerful. When you sing about pain, we know the pain is real. When you sing about your ancestors, we know that you feel them.

LHAm I not now my father’s father, my mother’s father, my grandmother, my great-grandparents? Am I not a spokesperson for them now? So why would I mislead them, just to find out I have misled myself? I do count my blessings. I count them one by one. And the main blessing that I have is life itself. Life is truly a privilege. And we all should be thankful for the period that we have to use it. Generations from now I hope that people read our conversation, and I think peoples that cannot read need to hear. I think that’s what has been allowed in my life. For those that cannot see but can hear, for those that cannot hear but can see. So many translations, so many ways of translating it. It’s like the spirit said: “Speak it. Speak it.” And then you come along and say, “Speak it, Mr. Holley, speak it.” Isn’t that like me utilizing my minister’s license to the point of preaching and you being the person in the back saying, “Amen, hallelujah, speak it, son, speak it”? You still hearing the same thing that you heard on Oh Me Oh My or on all of the records. Are they not chapter after chapter, if you look at it? All the records are chapter after chapter.

HTWhat’s the opening line on the track with Moor Mother? “I am a part of the wonder.” And doesn’t that speak through every one of your records? Part of the wonder, the wisdom.

Lonnie Holley at work in his Atlanta studio. Photo: David Raccuglia, courtesy the artist

LHNo matter where I go, I am a part of that wonder. To the depths of it or to the height of it. Divine wisdom—that’s another tear-snatcher. Divine wisdom was giving itself unto you free of charge. And you never noticed it? You ever cared to care? Here you is living on one of the greatest planets out in the universe and you never appreciated it? You never found yourself growing grateful enough to utter it out? Thank you greatness, thank you greatness. You see that’s why me and my collaborators get together, no matter who they are. And they end up calling me something like Moses that is leading a people to freedom [laughs]. Or somebody like John the Baptist, coming out of the wilderness, out of the ditches and the creeks of the wilderness. Out of the most messed-up part of the wilderness, you’re coming out of it and telling nothing but the truth. So now do they want my head like John the Baptist on a silver platter? No. My head is worthy of a gold platter. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? [laughs]

HTWhat’s more beautiful than gold? And what you just said links to something that you mentioned earlier: all you do, all you can do, is utter into the world. That’s what art does, music does, literature does, no? It utters into the world. And it’s about whether or not you can bring yourself to do that.

LHNo, it’s whether you ever realize it. You have to move away from stupidity. You have to open up the gates of righteousness, of self-righteousness. You have to ignore the foolishness that keeps you distracted. Because the clown is not going to let anyone take his or her suit off when they’re having fun in it [laughs]. When they’re having so much damn fun in that suit, they ain’t gonna let you take that suit off. Have you ever saw that about the clown? He or she is having so much fun in their suit. But once they take their suit off, it seem like they get bewildered, because they are unhappy with their true personality, because they never wore it out in public. They had always had a suit over it.

All these things that I’m talking about, it’s part of the art that I’ve created. It’s wire. Just a little piece of aluminum wire that holds the power to keep all the blocks connected. It all becomes wonder. No, it all becomes a wonder. No, it all becomes again like the song Moor Mother and I was singing, “a part of the wonder.” Everything becomes a part of the wonder.

Black-and-white portrait of Harry Thorne

Harry Thorne is a writer and an editor at Gagosian. He lives in London.

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