The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children was the kind of educational institution that traumatized its students more than it educated them. Founded in 1911, after the state of Alabama took over a large farming campus in the Mount Meigs community near Montgomery, the juvenile correctional facility became infamous for the horrific abuse and torture it inflicted on poor Black youth. In 1947, inspectors visiting the school found 300 boys “cooped up in cramped quarters with nothing to do or occupy their energies except to eat and live like hogs.” By the 1960s, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, young inmates were forced to pick cotton from sunrise until sundown; beatings and sexual abuse were common. “This was functionally a slave plantation,” concluded the journalist Josie Duffy Rice, who spent a year and a half researching the school’s history for a podcast series.
Lonnie Holley, who was born into extreme poverty in Jim Crow-era Alabama and spent his childhood being passed from surrogate parent to surrogate parent, was among the souls who did time at the Mount Meigs campus, where he was eventually sent after being arrested at 11. “I was like the Jungle Book child,” Holley reflected in 2018. “I was cast away from society.” The trauma lingers. Even at 73, as an internationally renowned visual artist and musician whose work defies classification, Holley experiences night terrors, haunted by memories of Mount Meigs.
He exorcizes these ghosts on “Mount Meigs,” the harrowing centerpiece of his fourth and finest album, Oh Me Oh My. As a roiling, free-jazz storm of bleating horns and frantic drums erupts around him, Holley transports us 60 years earlier, summoning the fields where he worked and the name of the belt-wielding man who beat him into submission. “They beat the curiosity out of me/They beat it out of me/They whooped it/They knocked it!” he recounts with mounting intensity. Like much of Oh Me Oh My, the song is an extraordinary aural memoir, honoring Holley's story of survival in what can only be called a fucked-up America.
Holley is a self-taught visual artist who specializes in vast, sprawling sculptures and found-object assemblage—work that he fashions from discarded materials such as animal bones and abandoned shoes and pieces of steel and which has made its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Throughout Oh Me Oh My, he applies a similar approach to music, creating unorthodox and moving songs out of the trauma and raw life materials that others would rather forget or discard. He surveys not only his own suffering at Mount Meigs, but the suffering of his mother, who gave birth to “baby after baby after baby after baby,” as Holley yowls on “Oh Me, Oh My,” a stunning track that pairs his narratives with Michael Stipe’s mournful croon.
Holley, a descendant of slavery, also taps into the intergenerational lineage of Black trauma, dramatizing an exchange between an enslaved person and her enslaver on “Better Get That Crop in Soon,” set to a funky undercurrent of kalimba and marimba grooves. (Slavery is a recurring theme both in Holley’s sculptures, which have depicted slave ships, and his music, which includes the 18-minute epic “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.”) By sequencing the song next to the more explicitly autobiographical “Mount Meigs,” he draws a parallel between his own experience and that of his ancestors, all victims of state-sanctioned brutality.
Made in collaboration with producer Jacknife Lee, who shares a writing credit on every song, Oh Me Oh My manages to be Holley’s most approachable and most ambitious album all at once. The widescreen, full-bodied arrangements are a grand departure. Holley began a music career in earnest in his 60s; his early releases, 2012’s Just Before Music and 2013’s Keeping a Record of It, contained chintzy, off-the-cuff arrangements that mostly served as a malleable canvas for the artist’s free-association storytelling. On 2018’s sprawling MITH, the music assumed a more dreamlike, jazzy texture, with tracks that unfolded across seven minutes or more.
On Oh Me Oh My, the songs are more tightly structured, while the musical backdrops take on a cinematic life of their own: the sputtering, orchestral funk of “Earth Will Be There,” the ambient drift of “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears,” the frantic, vibrating polyrhythms of “Better Get That Crop in Soon.” We even get traces of West African pop on “If We Get Lost They Will Find Us,” which features the raspy wail of Malian vocalist Rokia Koné. The poet Moor Mother blurs personal and cosmic histories into one on “I Am a Part of the Wonder” and “Earth Will Be There,” which place Holley’s detail-rich reminiscences in communion with free jazz, electro-funk, and the long, rich tradition of Afrofuturism.
Oh Me Oh My is the rare album that can be described as both “star-studded” and virtually bereft of mainstream appeal. Lee, who’s produced records for the likes of R.E.M. and U2, marshals some big-name contributors, and some will look askance at the intrusion of marquee guests into Holley’s work. What’s striking is that these guests rarely steal the spotlight (Koné is the exception), content to serve as part of the patchwork of Holley’s outsider art. Stipe contributes a soulful mantra to the title track; Sharon Van Etten brings a world-weary yearning to “None of Us Will Have But a Little While,” which yields Holley’s most melodic singing to date. And Bon Iver’s chilly, multilayered falsetto is instantly recognizable on “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears.” It’s the first time conventional hooks have been present in Holley’s music.
Every Lonnie Holley song is a survival song because Holley survived extraordinary circumstances and unimaginable pain to get here. Yet improbable optimism is embedded in his spirit; it’s reflected in his catchphrase, “Thumbs up for Mother Universe!” Throughout Oh Me Oh My, he finds a kind of liberation in naming his pain, adding it to the cosmic record, placing it next to that of his ancestors, both spiritual and literal. On “I Can’t Hush,” the elegiac would-be closer (the actual closer, “Future Children,” an experiment in vocal manipulation, has the feel of a gratuitous hidden track), he reckons with the abuses inflicted on his mother and grandmother. They stayed silent and kept it all “locked within their brains,” something Holley cannot do. “I need the black ropes of hope,” he states in his grandfatherly drawl. “I need the togetherness/Where we put our Black hands together and act like a rope.” Out of this rope, Holley fashions these remarkable songs; junkyard scraps have always been his liberation.
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