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American Routes Shortcuts: Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley
Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley from Birmingham, Alabama is a self-taught artist and musician who uses everyday objects as sculpture that tells stories. Lonnie had a rough childhood, living with an abusive foster family who ran honky-tonk, where he was nicknamed “Tonky” McElroy. Lonnie tried to escape, hopping a train to New Orleans at nine. He was arrested at eleven and taken to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, where Lonnie was made to pick one hundred pounds of cotton. His grandmother rescued him from the school and told him his name wasn’t Tonky McElroy but Lonnie Bradley Holley. For the last forty years, Holley has constructed artworks that have been seen at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, New York’s American Folk Art Museum, the High Museum in Atlanta, and the White House. After making home recordings for more than two decades on a keyboard Lonnie bought at a pawnshop, he released his first album at age sixty-two. His sound is experimental with lyrics improvised on the spot. Lonnie Holley explained how his artistic appreciation and ability stemmed from life at home with a large family.

Lonnie Holley: Out of my mother’s thirty-two pregnancies, there were twenty-seven children, and I’m the seventh of those twenty-seven children that lived. A lot of time we didn’t have no instruments. We didn’t even have the utensils, but we played like we was cooking dinner. They tore up the grass lives and broke up the sticks and things as the meat and whatever, and they stirred it all up. So all of these things is bound within me. I was taken away from Mother, grew up around the state fairgrounds and also had a drive-in theater in my backyard, so all of that music was in the background of my memories. So hearing all of this stuff and finding out this brain, this brain that we have is doing all of this stuff.

Nick Spitzer: How about finding your name: Tonky McElroy? How did you get that name, and how did you lose that name?

LH: I lived in a honky-tonk.

NS: Like living in a little juke joint where they made the music?

LH: So they shortened that down to “Tonky.” “Get up and dance Tonky,” you know, “Give me a quarter, watch me dance,” you know, where I was living. So it was McElroy, the McElroys that had took me in.

NS: I see, so was it their honky-tonk?

LH: Yes it was theirs. So I slept beside a Rock-Ola, and I got up, and I started dancing.

NS: So how did you lose the name Tonky McElroy and find your name?

LH: I didn’t lose Tonky McElroy within myself until my grandmamma came and got me out of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, and that’s after being treated real cruel. I say the spirit was–I really really be thankful for the great spirit continuing to take care of my life and the ancestors being with me.

NS: You’ve been through a lot in your journey. How do you move from trouble, struggle, strife, pain, to finding a way to express these things artistically?

LH: I learned how to deal with pain, but I didn’t know how to work this pain out of my brain because some people carry their pain like shell shock victims. They never forget them because they don’t have a self-therapy program or project working within themselves. That’s what art did for me. As the humans that was on a journey and American being just a stopping point because we’re always journeying to go somewhere. A lot of us we was journeying to get off this planet and go to heaven one day.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.