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Songs About an Abusive Jim Crow-era Delinquents Home

Lonnie Holley’s latest looks for redemption in a dark corner of the American past

David Meir Grossman
April 21, 2023

How do we find our place in history? It’s a question that’s both deeply personal and extremely vague, unless you know where to look. And while coming to understand our history can force us to confront difficult truths, it’s worth sitting through the discomfort.

Take the story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children. Better known as “Mt. Megis” (pronounced “Meg’s”), after the community in which it resides, the institution opened in 1947—in the heart of the Jim Crow era—a juvenile facility for Black kids who had broken the law. It ended up being a torture site.

I first learned about Mt. Megis through Josie Duffy Rice’s astonishing new podcast Unreformed, which explores the painful history of the institution. Early on in the first episode, as Rice was explaining injustices inflicted on one young boy who ended up there, I was shocked when she finally revealed the boy’s identity: Lonnie Holley, one of the most fascinating working musicians and artists today. Holley’s new album, Oh Me Oh My, explores his time at Mt. Megis with unblinking eyes, resulting in one of the year’s best albums.

Holley is 73, but he has only been properly making music since 2006. His is an outsider style, based around improvisational sing-talking and piano playing. Oh Me is his seventh album and quite possibly his best, bringing into focus a wide-ranging voice and an all-star cast of guest contributors.

“I Am a Part of the Wonder,” the album’s second track, featuring Moor Mother, speaks of the simplicity of childhood—or perhaps the dream of a simple childhood from the perspective of an adult. “I wanted to play,” Holley says over and over again. “A grandmother’s hands praising for life, high up in the air.” “A grandfather holding on strong to the tool.” “You are living by the beat of your heart.” These strands tie together through Holley’s gorgeous, searching voice as a jazzy background picks up the tempo. “Wake up to the wonder,” Moor Mother says.

“The deeper we go, the more chances there are, to understand,” Holley sings on the title track. He remembers hearing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem, as a child, and cherishes learning more and more about the rest of humanity, until the “Oh me” and “Oh my” turn into “Oh us,” with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe singing along in the background. Holley explores similar themes on “Earth Will Be There,” asking “Who’s gonna catch you, when you fall?”

“Mount Megis” brings the album into startling clarity. Few things are direct with Holley’s music, which makes this track so arresting by contrast. Holley’s voice is typically warm and comforting, but on “Mount Megis,” you can hear the pain in his voice. This is a torture victim using art to describe what happened to him, from the brutal conditions at the school to the horrifying sexual assault he endured there. Most shockingly, he describes, both in this song and on the podcast, guards making holes in dirt and forcing him to put his penis inside. “Tеlling you to put your dick in the hole, and he gеts ready to whip you, and beat you, down on the ground,” he sings with burning anger. “They let me go from Mount Megis in 1964, but with some cuts and bruises I’ll never forget” he says, and it’s unlikely the listener will either. 

The music is furious jazz, kicking into rapid drums, sharp horns, and wailing guitars. “They beat the curiosity out of me, they beat it out, they whooped it, they banged it, they damned it, they damned the curiosity!” His voice rises into anger, remembering the abuse as if it happened yesterday. It’s a difficult song to hear, one that has brought me to tears on each listen.

The next song, “Better Get That Crop in Soon,” focuses on similar themes, but with a lighter touch. It’s sung from the perspective of a slave asking his master a simple question: Do you think it’s going to rain today? From there, the horrors start to seep in. The conversation turns from the weather to “that old leather whip” so casually you might not even notice on first listen.

This is an album that looks directly into the horrors of America’s past and finds personal healing. Holley returns to his grandmother on “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears,” with Bon Iver providing lush background vocals, thinking back to his dreams of her telling him not to cry. On “None of Us Will Have But a Little While,” he sings out that “we’ve all been struggling to get somewhere,” and you really believe him.

Maybe an album like this is how healing from history starts. Looking directly at the pain, not running from it, but not running from the rest of life either. It’s not a dancing album, it’s one you sit with. But sitting with Oh Me Oh My is worth it; you’ll come out richer for the experience.

David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.