Lonnie Holley’s music on MITH sounds like a choir of better angels whose multi-layered voice is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, like so much Alabama clay.
By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Lonnie Holley is a folk dynamo in his native Birmingham, Alabama. He represents the eccentric Southerner, the defiant personality whose timelessness and will to survival awes us. In MITH, his third album, Holley invites us to assume that position ourselves. The tone of the album is floating, but to a purpose. Holley is not unmooring us for the sake of avant-garde sound; he is unmooring us so that we may float on our backs with him, spectating and speculating on the universal mysteries behind our commonplace cruelties and injustices.
The techniques at play in this album have been fine-tuned. Holley had become recognized as a visual artist some thirty years before he turned his attention to music. Beginning with carving his sister’s children’s tombstones for want of a professional engraver, Lonnie started with sandstone sculptures. Expanding from that he began collecting and repurposing found objects. His work has been displayed at the White House, the Smithsonian, the American Folk Art Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and Birmingham’s International Airport and Museum of Art.
Yet prior to his visual art there was the man himself, who may as well be a repurposed object in one of his own collages. His life story is that of a castaway: born into Jim Crow segregation, raised by a burlesque dancer, traded for a bottle of whiskey, near-fatally hit by a car, and more. For Holley, life itself no doubt resonates with an imperative to pick up the discarded and revive it in altered contexts.
Just as in his life and his visual art, Holley’s music works with found circumstances and found conditions. His vocals have been described as a cross between Leadbelly and Marvin Gaye, but one might do better to compare them to a rough Otis Taylor or R. L. Burnside. Indeed, the voices of Birmingham locals Piney Brown and Adolphus Bell could be compared to Holley’s, forged as they all were in the Black Belt musical culture of central Alabama, where the southern Appalachians drop of into the fertile Gulf Coast plains. It is not a coincidence that Holley’s prior label, Dust-to-Digital, specializes in archival-style folk releases; Holley’s voice is at once his own and rooted in his environments. Its historical resonances are deep.
The vocals hover above sparse musical accompaniments without any recognizable song structures. In some way they resemble a work song in formation, a grasping outward for a new rhythm to order things. The lyricism of the central track on the album, “I Snuck off the Slave Ship,” suggests something of this. The singer imagines sneaking off of the trans-Atlantic slave ship, only to later lament that we are sneaking back on to another kind of slave ship in our age. A fundamental problem of labor and power remains leftover, an obstinate object found in the detritus we thought we left behind.
Likewise, “I’m a Suspect” begins with the damnable hypocrisy of racial injustice in America. The singer declares that he is ‘a suspect’ in this country. By the middle of the song, however, Holley suggests that beating that drum alone is outweighed by the magnitude of all of our neglected possibilities: “I’m a dust speck in the universe.” When Holley asks us to float this way we find familiar objects repurposed in new contexts. We are brought closer to the artist and one another. Perhaps even closer to the truth.
Among other artists performing on the album, the inclusion of Anna and Elizabeth, who are known for their often free-floating, reinvented Appalachian-styled singing, is particularly interesting. Like Holley, Anna & Elizabeth represent our moment of folk revival, even restoration. They are not merely standing on top of tradition, like the sampling of a Lomax recording by Moby or Beyoncé, or the Avett Brothers’ or Old Crow Medicine Show’s skinny-pants Americana. Nor are they among today’s purists, such as Frank Fairfield or Blind Boy Paxton. Artists like Holley are demonstrating how a powerful link may be forged between the archives and our lived experiences.
In that way Holley’s work lacks any irony in his performative repurposing of the past and present. This is not avant-garde — as in signing one’s name to a urinal and calling it a fountain. Or if there is irony, it is a dead serious irony which we are invited to feel along with the artist. The album is an invitation that bears the mark of an authentic ‘folk’ project — an attempt to enliven participatory culture. Maybe it is the irony of folklore and myth, those imaginative transpositions of reality give the album its name: MITH. Maybe his music resonates with the irony of the Blues, when ‘suspect’ becomes the ‘dust speck.’
Cornel West has written: “The fundamental irony of American history is that we follow the better angels of our nature when we honestly and compassionately confront the devilish realities we would like to ignore or deny.” Holley’s work on MITH is the sound of a choir of better angels whose multi-layered voice is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, like so much Alabama clay. His music reminds us all that we need only keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to the found humanity all around us — all so that we may ourselves be found.
Jeremy Ray Jewell is from Jacksonville, Florida. He has an MA in History of Ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. He maintains a blog of his writings entitled That’s Not Southern Gothic.