“Be Soft in the In-Between”: An Evening with Lonnie Holley
Lonnie Holley on February 4, 2017
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man includes a scene during which the nameless protagonist engages in a conversation with a homeless man who serves, fleetingly but portentously, as the novel’s clear-eyed prophet; the character who, removed from the repetitive struggles of quotidian life, observes with piercing vision and oblique humor the illusions with which the other characters in the novel are consumed. The homeless character in 1998’s Bulworth, starring Warren Beatty, functions in a similar fashion: the Zenic outsider who, at the end of the film, cryptically repeats: “you got to be a spirit, not a ghost,” making a distinction between an energetic force that might continue to infuse and inspire the actions of the living and a thwarted soul unable to relinquish its egoic attachments.
Remembering Ellison’s book and Bulworth also reminds me of the function of the jester in much literature, notably the plays of Shakespeare. In Lear, for example: while other characters regard their lives from biased perspectives, blinded by their own ambitions, it’s the jester who sees without prejudice. His humor is a creative response to Lear’s hubris and inevitable descent. The jester is also the only character who can speak to the king with impunity, who’s permitted to be confrontationally honest. In this sense, the jester is the real king, who attempts (unsuccessfully) to enlighten the worldly king. If one regards Lear and the jester as two parts of the same psyche, the jester represents “the higher self,” Lear what might be regarded as the narcissistically inclined, albeit conflicted, personality. This interpretive model offers social implications as well, the individual psyche a metaphor for the broader culture, how there always exist complex dissonances within a collective, harmonies leading to fragmentation to harmonies, and so on, a welter of altruistic and self-serving agendas.
Which brings me to the evening of Friday, February 4. The New Frequencies Series at the McColl Center in Charlotte, NC: Lonnie Holley is an unusual musician and vocalist. What he performs are not necessarily songs, in the conventional sense. In fact, his compositions are, apparently, never duplicated. While he has released two albums, he doesn’t have a song-list or repertoire, per se. Each recording and performance involves new material. While Holley touches on various subjects, his improvised lyrics mostly address what I’d call existential matters: the distractive role of technology in our lives, the importance of creativity, and how love has always been and always will be what moves the world forward, socially and spiritually.
As cliché as it sounds, that’s what Lonnie Holley transmits: love. But not sentimental love; rather, a tough, hard-won, and world-weary love. A take-no-BS, tolerate-no-nonsense love. In this sense, he reminded me of the above-referenced characters: the wise men of Ellison’s novel and Bulworth, the comedian-provocateur of Lear: a shamanic figure who “entertains” in such a way as to transmit complex and often unpalatable truths. In one piece, he sang about “seeds,” planting and caretaking “roots,” using nature-based metaphors to emphasize the value of discipline, faith, and work. In another piece, he closed by stressing the significance of “collaboration.” He demonstrated, and had the audience join him, how the fingers of the hand work together to perform simple functions. In this way, he led his audience to experience collaborative energy as a bodily sensation, essentially reflexive, an integral part of being alive; how this inherent capacity can, in turn, be directed into broader and more interpersonal realms.
In another piece, Holley urged: “learn to be soft in the in-between.” In yet another, he made reference to numerous pop icons, including “Popeye eating spinach,” repeating: “I’m thinking about all the characters changing costumes.” As spontaneously authentic as Holley is, however, he’s also a consummate performer. He knows the value of a good story, sharing how he grew up in Alabama and attended a segregated school, how he labored on a cotton field. He also knows the power of a compelling myth of origin, sharing that his mother gave birth to twenty-seven children (!) and suggesting that as a child he was hit and dragged by a car and in a coma for several months, his doctors certain that he was “brain dead,” though he emerged intact and clearer than ever.
I can’t stress enough the contributions of Dave Egger on cello and Jordon Ellis on drums. Together they forged an organic, ambient, and jazzily avant garde soundscape (sometimes euphonic, sometimes discordant) that aptly complemented Holley’s more primitive use of keyboard as well as his blues- and soul- infused vocal (think RL Burnside, a smoother John Lee Hooker, at times perhaps James Brown). That said, it was ultimately Holley’s “crazy wisdom” presence, his engagement with the audience, and his unflagging candor—as well as his idiosyncratic use of poetic language and vernacular—that rendered the experience highly memorable; a unifying balm, especially during this period when social and political divisions are particularly highlighted.
 I’m aware that it’s risky to compare someone to two homeless characters and a jester. But let me emphasize that the two homeless characters in the abovementioned sources are essentially the only people in their respective environs who are able to perceive the truth about their immediate surroundings and the world at large. They’re heroic, even if marginal, figures. The word “jester” has negative connotations in our contemporary culture, but reams could be written regarding how the jester, especially in Shakespeare’s work, is the seer, the prophet, the Renaissance equivalent to the Greek Myths’ Tiresias. Consider too the following quote from Thomas Aquinas: “One who is strengthened by God professes himself to be an utter fool by human standards, because he despises what the wisdom of men strives for.”