Testing 1, 2, 3
We are all being tested
Here we are
Testing our abilities
Here we are
Testing our ability…

The opening lines of Testing, the first song on Lonnie Holley’s album Oh Me Oh My, released on the Jagjaguwar label on March 10, 2023.

In 2013, in an interview with RJ Smith (NPR), Holley, who lives in Atlanta, Georgia, shared this about his music, “I’m not trying to copy nobody, not trying to outdo nobody with my music…I’m trying to celebrate the opportunities that music allows for each individual. Because if you look back at music, music didn’t need no classroom. Music didn’t need anybody to give it a Grade A. Music was made in the fields and in some of the meanest conditions… music made people get out of their sick bed.

Oh me oh my cover art

Lonnie Holley’s background and artistic influences

Holley, 73, is a self-taught visual artist whose sculptures and found-object assemblages are included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He started devoting more time to his music in his ‘60s and released his first album, Just Before Music, in 2012, followed by Keeping a Record of It (2013) and MITH (2018). Holley’s visual art and music are greatly influenced by some of the “meanest conditions” of his life.

Holley, a descendant of slavery, was born into extreme poverty in Jim Crow-era Alabama in 1947 and spent most of his childhood being passed from surrogate parent to surrogate parent. At the age of 11, Holley was arrested and sent to the infamous Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, located in the Mount Meigs community near Montgomery, where the “inmates” were subjected to torture and abuse (psychological, physical, and sexual).

The song, Mount Meigs, is a retelling/reliving of Holley’s trauma, including being beaten unconscious by one of the overseers. Generational trauma runs deep in Lonnie Holley’s visual art and music.

Holley conjures up the brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the song Better Get That Crop in Soon with such forceful lyrics and vocals while a funky groove drives the music.

Oh Me Oh My

Oh Me Oh My is Holley’s fourth album, and its expansiveness, emotionally and musically, is enhanced by his chosen collaborators starting with producer Jackknife Lee, who co-wrote the songs.

Lee has an impressive resume having produced albums for R.E.M. and U2, and his connections to big-name musical artists who lent their talents to this album – Michael Stripe (R.E.M.), Moor Mother, Sharon Van Etten, Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), Malian vocalist Rokia Koné – add texture and harmonies (Holley is not the most melodic vocalist) that make this album a deeply moving experience.

These collaborations have also broadened Lonnie Holley’s musical audience, and that’s a good thing because I’d like to believe that this album can open up some pathways to being more curious, empathetic, and compassionate.

Oh Me Oh My is a melding of Sun Ra meets funk, meets West African pop, and meet me on the dance floor. I can envision a group of us in a space listening to the album, moving our bodies while images of his visual artwork and song lyrics are projected on the walls, ceiling, and floor.

A personal note

I’ll share this listening ritual that I engage in when I’m alone – I plug my headphones (no wireless for me) into my almost 20-year-old iPod and go outside in the dark, look up into the night sky, and take it all in. And with this album, there was a lot to take in – the sorrow and pain, the hope and wonder, the creativity and imagination, my abilities and responsibilities, and my sense of place within the universe.

I’ll leave you with these few lines from the title track, Oh Me Oh My, sung by Lonnie Holley and Michael Stripe, “The deeper we go, the more chances there are, for us to understand the oh-me’s and understand the oh-my’s…” along with one of Holley’s common sayings, “thumbs up for Mother Universe.

About the Writer: Susan Heske moved to Boulder, CO, in October 2021. She previously worked as Senior Director of Communications for Student Services at The New School in New York City. She has been involved with social justice issues for many years.