I woke up this morning thinking about the experience I had last night with Emily and Wilson. There’s a tiny venue in Grant Park that is known through a word of mouth/Facebook group of people - it’s called Grocery on Home. The guy that runs it brings in musicians to give intimate performances to a small audience of music lovers. I’ve been to a couple of shows there, and had long heard about Lonnie Holley through my Facebook connection with Grocery On Home.
Lonnie Holley is a 66 year old African American musician and artist from Birmingham, AL. Wikipedia has this to say about him:
Lonnie Bradley Holley, sometimes known as The Sand Man, is an African-American artist and art educator. He was born the 7th of 27 children, and claims to have been traded for a bottle of whiskey when he was four. Follow this link to a great story about him in the NY Times.
We walked in early to the Grocery, wanting to get a good comfortable seat on one of the cozy couches facing the stage (knowing that the 9 year old might not be awake for long!), and we were able to shake hands and receive a warm greeting from Mr. Holley himself. His big black hands embraced Wilson’s tiny freckled ones in a powerful grip. Later Wilson commented - “did you see how big his hands were??” I had noticed and thought about the experiences those hands and that man must have had thus far in his life.
Bill and Matt Arnett, who have been instrumental in promoting and developing Lonnie Holley’s unique music and art, spoke about Mr. Holley for a few minutes before the show. Their love and respect for this man are obvious, and his artwork and music are like nothing I have ever experienced. Bill Arnett, in the aforementioned NY Times article, is quoted as saying,
“He was actually the catalyst that started me on a much deeper search,” Arnett says, adding bluntly that “if Lonnie had been living in the East Village 30 years ago and been white, he’d be famous by now.”
In terms of his music, I texted a friend after the show and describe it as “spoken word meets music meets otherworld-like keyboards meets a 65 year old deep south African American man” .
The NY Times article describes Mr. Holley's musical performance as:
“In terms of genre, Holley’s music is largely unclassifiable: haunting vocals accompanied by rudimentary keyboard effects, progressing without any traditional song structure — no choruses, chord changes or consistent melody whatsoever.”
The NY Times probably described it best, but what both of our descriptions left out was just the palpable spirit of this man. As we listened to his unique blend of improvisational music (I got the feeling he was making it up as it came across his lips; Matt had said at the beginning that he never sang the same song twice…I could see that in this performance), I thought about his life. I thought about the life of a man born 7th of 27th children. I thought about the bravery and inspiration it must have taken to do what he has done with his music and art. They say that if you are meant to make music or art or write - you just can’t stop it. It has to come out. I can see this in him. I thought of the battles he has fought, the mountains he has climbed to be here - making music and art and reminding us of what is good in this world.
On this Thanksgiving morning, in the wake of much angst in our world, I am grateful that there is art and music and creativity, and that no one can ever take this away. Laws can be passed, opinions can be spewed out like venom, sides can be taken, lines in the sand can be drawn. The human spirit is so resilient, and it is the beauty of art in all its forms that will prevail. In the face of art and music, hatred cannot survive; only love.
I’m no music or art connoisseur, but I do connect with people in an intuitive way and I could feel Lonnie Holley’s huge spirit. I could feel the impact he had on his audience. I honestly couldn’t even say I “loved” his music - it’s different, it’s unexpected…but it did touch me. The man himself touched me. Wilson, in all of his nine year old wisdom, summed it up perfectly. He said, “he seems like a man that relies upon God”. I woke up meditating on that thought this morning. Emily and I laughed when Wilson said that - not because we thought it was funny, but because it was not what you expect to come out of a nine year old’s mouth. We were taken aback because he was SPOT ON. That is exactly the feeling I had. We are not a particularly religious family, we don’t even talk about God that often, but I have always said that through my trials and tribulations and joys in life, I have always known God is right there with me. I rely upon God. I’m pretty sure Lonnie Holley relies upon God. Our Gods may be different - but there are millions of people in our world looking to their God for comfort and security. Through art and music and the written or spoken word, God is there.
I have so much to be thankful for - Lonnie Holley exemplifies the spirit that results in the creation of art and music - two things that are at the top of my gratitude list today. What can we do to make this world a better, more loving place? Create something beautiful - a song, a painting, a tune, a story, a cookie! Create it with love and that spirit will prevail in our world.
He seems like a man that relies upon God. Out of the mouths of babes.