As he tells it, Lonnie Holley’s story of growing up poor in the south is nearly impossible to fathom, marked again and—almost routinely—again by trauma. But then, too, by art, as he built a career as a self-taught sculptor and painter of found objects. Last year, at 62, after decades of singing while he worked, Holley released his jarring debut album, Just Before Music, a marriage of improvised keys and the rambling, hollow bellow of his voice, as well as the first original recording put out by the archival folk label Dust-to-Digital. This year, he’ll tour, and he recently starred in a Whitney Museum group show, “Blues for Smoke.” Exclusive video from that mesmerizing performance is embedded below. Here, in an excerpt from a two-hour speakerphone conversation from Dust to Digital’s headquarters in Atlanta, Holley tells us where he comes from, and why that matters.
My mama had 27 children. I’m the seventh. You can imagine if a woman had three children that needed her titty, then it would be all right for another woman to take one away and feed from her breasts instead. One day this lady asked my mama if she could keep me overnight, and instead of taking me back the next day, she kept me. When I was four years old, that lady brought me back to Alabama and sold me into this whiskey house, to Mr. and Mrs. McElroy.
From four years old, I remember getting real, real hungry. I remember a big plate of food being set down in front of me, and this man trying to take my plate of food away. I crawled underneath the couch and bit him, and he took a poker iron and juked a hole in my head. Next bit of memory were maybe fonder memories. I was five years old and I was starting to pick up paper at the drive-in theater. I picked up all the popcorn, all the candy, everything that was stepped over, and I got a chance to eat it. I was able to see all the movies that I wanted. I had to steal an education. I was crawling through sewer pipes to get into these places for free, stealing my way in, but I was getting an experience no other child would have. Up and down the ditches, I dug up worms, I turned over the old broken glass, I turned over the broken stone, I turned over the stuff that was supposed to have been flushed out of the city. If other children would have gotten these experiences, I bet we would’ve had a lot more brains like Lonnie Bradley Holley.
I lived with the McElroys until I was getting ready to turn 12. I knew that mama stayed out by the airport, in the East Lake area, and I was way out west, so I tried to find mama by running away. I got caught, and I got sent to the juvenile. That night we broke out, me and these older boys, and we stole a car. It was a rainy night. We went two blocks and hit a telegram pole, and we got caught and took right back. The next morning, they loaded us up and sent us to Mount Meigs, Alabama, to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. The Industrial School was like hell. It was cruelest place that I ever experienced. I was so afraid. I was lost to my peoples, really. By leaving the McElroys, I was lost in the system. I was called Tunkie McElroy, not Lonnie Holley, and nobody really knew me.
I thought I would have to stay in Mount Meigs till I was 18, then leave and go to Kibbie Prison. So I made a plan. We was pulling corn shucks and I told Mr. Glover I needed to take a number two. I really didn’t have to, but I pretended, and I went in the field, dug a hole real deep and squatted. They started getting further and further up the field until they forgot about me. When I couldn’t hardly see the top of their heads no more, I started backing out of the field. Pants still down, just backing up. I got to the barbed wire fence, backed underneath it, pulled my clothes up and started running away. I didn’t know which way to run, so I just started running. I got to this place called Tuskegee, Alabama. I saw these crackers on top of a refrigerator with some sardines, so I took my arm and I busted the window out and broke in. I sat down and went to eating until I got full and fell asleep. Next thing I knew, a white man grabbed my collar and shook me up, and he took his fist and—POP!—knocked me out. Oh, I was out cold. Next thing I know, Mr. E.B. Holloway back at Mount Meigs was slapping me in the face, calling me Dolly. He said, “What you run away for Dolly?” And before I had time to say, he took his fist and knocked me out again.
They tied me down to a cedar tree. Mr. E.B. Holloway told Mr. Glover, “Give him 150 licks!” Mr. Glover had a stick and he stuck it in black tractor oil and wiped it off, then he started beating me. He started beating me and all I can remember is going through as much pain as I could take. The next thing I know, he had busted my head open and knocked me out again. I was taken loose from the morning bench, but I couldn’t walk because my legs was all swoll up. I had blood running down the back of my head, down my back, and my clothes was bloody. They dragged me to the shearing house where they cut the hair off sheeps, and they took scissors and cut my pants seam down the outer side of my leg.
When I came to, I couldn’t get off this white rock pile. I was made to sit on a rock pile for one year. My thighs were split open, and I couldn’t walk. I had to sit in my own waste and mess. I didn’t have anybody to share my thoughts with. I didn’t have nobody to tell my problems to. Wasn’t nobody ever allowed to come around me. I only had these white rocks, and my blood images on the rocks to look at. Think about this. What happens to my brain while going through that punishment? I was in silence. I had no way of openly expressing. What happened was I was innerly expressing. My emotions and my feelings were being digested and written down in the pattern of my brain.
One shouldn’t feel pity for me. I don’t want pity for what I had to go through. I only want humans to hear my testimony and understand that life is not always easy. This is what I’m talking about in my music. My music is not going to be for everybody to hear. Everybody ain’t going to be able to dance and bump and drop it like it’s hot, ease it up like it’s cold. I may not be the best hip-hopper or booty-swapper. There are so many rocks and so many broken stones and so many nails and sticks and weeds and debris and garbage and trash, and we have to plow and mine the worst things on this earth to make them better, and to make us better, so we can show the world: I can handle it. I can deal with it. I can live with it. I can go on. All of this stuff we call hell, how can I take from that hell and make it better?
It’s like a chain of hope. If a person keeps hoping for something, eventually hope hooks up to hope. There was a boy at Mount Meigs named Carter Young, and he said his people lived on the airport [property], and I told him my mama lived out there too, but I’d never seen her. He told his sister, and talk got around that I was mama’s missing baby boy. All of a sudden, one day, grandma came. Her name was Hicksie Kennedy; she was my daddy’s mama. She came to Mount Meigs and she got me and she raised me. I would go from her house to mama’s house, but I stayed with her, and I loved her. You see this woman, she rescue you, and then she take you to what you’ve been dreaming of, but before you get there you still learn lessons along the way.
In 1979, my sister Bonnie Holley lost two of her children, a baby girl and an eight-year-old son. A house caught on fire and her children were burned. Everybody in my whole family was so upset. Bonnie started to have seizures. You can imagine me having to absorb all my family’s tears, and my tears. It made such an impression on me as a human, I was just wondering, what could I do? For me to handle it, it took an outlet. I went to my sister Shirley’s house and I found some sandstone from the foundry. There was a lot of it over by the house in a ditch, and I took these two big pieces and took them home in the basement of my grandpap’s house. I took the cross-cut saw and it cut so smooth. I cut it that way to make a tombstone out of it. I didn’t know it was art. I thought I was making baby tombstones.
About four months later, I had made about a 100-odd pieces. I was so upset, because I hadn’t made any money or been to work, when my friend up the street named Miss Sarah Kelly called me to get some wood. I was crying, and she tapped me on the face and kissed me on the jaw and said, “You need to take your work to town and stop waiting on town to come to you.” I had made all these things around the house, and was taking the little pieces door to door asking people to buy them, but I had never been to town. So I took my old car and loaded about nine pieces in the trunk and took them to the Birmingham Museum of Art. One piece was called Serpent in the Pit of Christ, and one was called Time, and one was called Baby Being Born. I saw a man by the name of Mr. Richard Murray, and he loved the way I described them. He took a note of them and sent pictures to the Smithsonian, and my works was chosen four months later for an exhibit of the 13 original colonies of the Appalachian region. It was shown in 64 cities, in 13 name-brand museums. They can curse me out, call me dirty, call me filthy, talk about me—I don’t care what nobody say. I came back home with appreciation.
Me as a father, I always try to be an example. I couldn’t be nothing else but an example. I have 15 children of my own. I had to make their lives out of my art. I told the children, “If a ball rolls over into the art, let it stay there. We’ll get another ball.” They would not trample the art or break anything. If one came into my environment, they would say I was a high priest, just placing memory things around the alter, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw work being put out.
When [the state of Alabama condemned my land and] bull-dozed my environment in 1997, there at the airport, at 1909 18th Avenue North, it was like they killed a part of me. They didn’t give me time to catalogue the art or let it be photographed. I don’t know whether you can go to an attorney or a judge and say, “Judge, these people are hurting me this way,” and the judge would act upon it, but they were hurting me. When they put the condemn sign up on my property, that meant everybody could come on your property to take everything they wanted. People just started coming on my property, taking my art, tearing it apart for the aluminum, for the brass, for the copper, for the iron, for the metal, for whatever they thought was good. I got maybe thousands of stones, and thousands of works of cut-outs, and paper. Sometimes I would stand up all day painting on paper, then I painted on plywood. My kids would go off to school, they come back, they daddy still in the same place working art.
Art is just in the eye of the beholder. Do we call it art when the old man was going around recycling material from the side of the railroad, building a 16-room house? What about when mama take some flour and beat the flour, spread it on the wall and pack some newspaper up there to cover the cracks? Would she consider it a collage? They would have just said, Oh, that woman is doing something. There are more humans like me on earth. They just need an opportunity. The harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few. If these museums and galleries and all of these upper institutions cannot deal with our formula of art, our materials that we use, then there should be places and institutions created in America for us. We are just as important to America’s values as Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Matisse—any foreign artist. As Dr. King say, If I do not get off my horse to help this man, what will happen to this man? Now, move man out the way: if I do not do my art to help art, then what will happen to art? I still don’t know why I was born. It may be something still to happen.
After Kendrick Brinson photographed Lonnie Holley for this story, he asked if he could write a song about their day and her pretty red hair. He made it up on the spot, and she recorded it with her phone.