A Child Sold For a Bottle of Whiskey: The Making of Lonnie Holley’s “MITH”

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Lonnie Holley begins his third album with a somber truth. “I’m a suspect in America,” he cries over soft, blushing keys. But he ends the album on an entirely different note.

Born in Alabama during the Jim Crow era, Holley has endured the oppressive gaze that reduces African Americans to mere suspects for nearly seven decades. “Beyond the chain gang, the games are still the same,” the introductory track continues. But he doesn’t focus on this sad frame of American history for long. The song pans out, over layers of dubbed lyrics and astral tones, concluding with “I’m a dust speck/ a dust speck/ in the universe.” The opening track is a lament, but like the album as a whole, it ends in the joyful awe that accompanies the resolution of pain into art.

Holley was the seventh of 27 children. At one and a half, he was stolen from his mother by a burlesque dancer who took him on tour across the country, where he was passed from one dancer to another between shows. Arriving in Birmingham after the tour ended, the dancer sold him for a bottle of whiskey to a liquor store proprietor named Mr. McElroy. Holley, still a toddler, didn’t even know his own name, so Mr. McElroy gave him one: “Tonky.” He would go by this nickname for years.

Holley lived with the McElroy’s until he was nine years old, when Mrs. McElroy died. In some awful misdirection of grief, McElroy lashed out at Holley and delivered a beating so exceptionally brutal, Holley still remembers it sixty years later. He ran away, escaped is the better word, after that, but having nowhere to go, he hopped on a train in search of his mother.

He didn’t find her. Instead, around 1960, the train stopped in a gorgeous city cradled by a river, with jazz playing hotly through the thick air hanging under street lamps. Lonnie Holley was in New Orleans.

Holley remembers this period fondly. He was taken in by a generous man named Big Daddy who sold black-eyed peas and vegetables from a horse drawn wagon. “He was a wonderful man,” Holley recalled in an interview with Natalie Baszile. For a brief period, he helped Big Daddy on deliveries in the wagon, clopping around a beautiful city somewhat guarded from the violent confrontations of the civil rights movement in New Orleans in 1960. But his salad days were short-lived.

One day Big Daddy stepped out of the wagon to make a delivery, and in a bout of youthful curiosity, Holley seized the reins. The horse charged and Big Daddy’s vegetables and wares spilled out of the wagon into the street where they were quickly snatched by opportunistic passers-by. Furious, Big Daddy informed the police that Holley had escaped from Birmingham. Shortly afterwards, he was on a train back to Mr. McElroy. He tried to escape, once again, only to end up at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.

“Let’s call it what it is: a slave camp,” Holley says. It was the most agonizing period of Holley’s life. He picked cotton from sunrise to sunset, overseen by armed guards eager to inflict the most severe punishment for the slightest infraction. Baszile reports that Holley was “regularly whipped with a white-oak sapling soaked in tractor oil.”

Holley spent four years at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children near Montgomery, until his paternal grandmother got word of his presence there and saved him. It was his grandmother who first told him, at 15, that his real name was not Tonky. His name was Lonnie Bradley Holley.

The center-piece of “MITH” is an 18 minute track titled “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.” It’s a harrowing and moving masterpiece. “Captured my body…dragged without food or water from sun up to sun down” he sings over escalating synth and jazz drum that form a lush background for Holley’s gravelly vibrato. His voice soars over snippets of whistling reminiscent of field songs and reiterations of “I snuck off the slave ship, in my imagination.” His perspective is uncompromising: “fields turned into factories,” then museums that memorialize the agony. “I snuck off the slave ship, just to sneak on another. And here it is,” he concludes.

The following track, “I Woke Up in a F****d America,” returns Holley to the present day crisis in America. “I fell asleep anticipating a dream,” he sings, “I woke up in a fucked up America…Let me out of this dream.” The track is an experimental assemblage of crashing symbols and blasting trombone punctuating jazz piano, laser gun synth, and jazz snares. It’s a free jazz piece that flirts with chaos, resembling the current political delirium in America.

Holley’s art and music are seldom discussed apart from his remarkably painful past, which is understandable. It’s not often you hear a story about a child who, stolen by a burlesque danger and sold to a liquor store owner in Alabama for a bottle of whiskey, ends up train hopping to New Orleans only to be sent back to a slave camp in Montgomery where he is whipped with oak saplings drenched in oil until he is finally reunited with his grandmother and discovers his real name at the age of 15. The story is told so frequently that it might seem his tale is pandering his art, but more often it seems his art illuminates his story. Holley’s is a case where it’s hard to draw a line between life and art.

Holley did not begin recording songs until 2010. For most of his life his artistic inclinations lied in sculpture, creating works from salvaged refuse — baby socks, rubber tubing, driftwood and busted televisions. His work is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the White House, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Much of Holley’s music is like his sculptures, scraps of time and discarded material that, once captured in his orbit, are entwined and assembled into figures of exquisite beauty. Matt Arnett, an art historian and collector who now tours with Holley, claims they bring multiple empty suitcases along to pack all the detritus that Holley picks up along the way.

A constantly creating, compulsive artist, Holley lives in Atlanta, and his bedroom features a wiry canopy of hanging sculptures. In an interview with the Guardian, Holley confesses that the objects he surrounds himself with make him feel safe: “I make art to protect my art…I figure if anybody tries to break in, they’d just be confused by all this stuff.”

In “MITH,” Holley gathers various materials from distant epochs. In “Coming Back (From the Distance Between the Spaces of Time),” the seventh of the 10 album tracks, Holley relates a vision of “what it’s going to take to make us stronger” over spacey synth impressions and drum crescendos. It’s followed by “There Was Always Water,” but it’s not the ominous water surrounding a slave ship — instead it’s the elemental, vital liquid that he abstractly celebrates. By the end of Holley’s album, our attention is no longer trained on individual slices of regrettable history.

“Sometimes I Wanna Dance” is the last track on the album, and it makes sense. In the end, without compromising or forgetting any of his painful past, Holley zooms out to a cosmic perspective where all the scrapes and lashes are woven into art, and the hard focus on unsettling history at the album’s core resolves into a kind of cosmic serenity. It’s part science fiction experiment, part spiritual reckoning, and entirely beautiful.

Philosopher of science and technology on vacation. Author of Time, Technology, and Environment (Oxford University Press), a love story about wasps and orchids.

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