Lonnie Holley’s song of himself
Lonnie Holley’s left hand is bedecked in so many rings that his little finger has been rendered completely immobile. Nevertheless, last week at a concert at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, it pinned down a note on his red keyboard while a drummer flickered a beat beside him. Meanwhile his unadorned right hand was palming the keys, his fingertips pointing upwards like he was patting a dog that bites, and his voice was shifting from a soul singer’s smooth recitation to a preacher’s thundering roar. But soon his hands softened and collapsed, his fierce howl dissolved into a surprisingly melodic whistle, and Holley was back to the fragile groove of his improvised song-poems, a sui generis amalgam of jazz, blues and ambient music.
To find out who Lonnie Holley is just listen to his lyrics. In them you’ll hear his life story retold and repurposed again and again. You’ll hear him sing of being born into poverty in Alabama in 1950, the seventh of 27 children. You’ll hear how he was sold to another family for a bottle of whiskey, how he was beaten and abused, and ran away from them at the age of 12. He ended up at the terrifying Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, until the joyous day his grandmother reclaimed him and took him back home. “The Start of a River’s Run (One Drop)” uses the subject of his running away as a springboard to dive into stories of slave ships and ancestral worship. “Fifth Child Burning” uses the death of a niece in a house fire to create a jittery, haunting lament for her that touches on the 1963 bombing of a church in Alabama, “America’s Next Top Model”, and the heavy burden adults place on children. The remarkably sweet “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants” combines a story of space travel with one of ecological devastation and a birthday tribute to Queen Elizabeth II.
For years his songs were sung to an audience of one as he built his sculptures in his yard. Holley would collect old speakers and modify them to act as microphones, placing them in the bushes and trees so that wherever he was his extempore songs could be recorded. He would play them to Matt Arnett—the son of William Arnett, the foremost collector of vernacular art in the American South—who encouraged Holley to perform these songs live. Before long, Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta record label specialising in historical recordings of blues and gospel, asked to record him. His first album “Lonnie Holley: Just Before Music”, appeared in 2012, when he was 62. “Keeping a Record of It” came out the following year and featured on many critics’ “best albums of 2013” lists.