The East African Song School or Okot School poetry is now an academic identification of the work following his direction, also popularly called 'comic singing': a forceful type of dramatic verse monologue rooted in traditional song and phraseology.
He was born in Gulu, in the North Uganda grasslands. His father was a schoolteacher, his mother Lacwaa Cerina was a traditional singer. His background was Acholi, and he wrote first in Luo, one of the Western Nilotic languages.
He was educated at Gulu High School, then King's College, Budo, and later at universities in the United Kingdom. At school he was noted as a singer, dancer, drummer and athlete; he composed and directed an opera while at college.
He travelled abroad first as a player with the Ugandan national football team, in 1958. At this point he gave up on football as a possible career, staying on in Britain; he studied education at the University of Bristol, and then law at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He then took a B. Litt. degree in social anthropology at the University of Oxford, with a 1963 dissertation on Acholi and Lango traditional cultures.
According to George Heron he lost his commitment to Christian belief during these years. This had major consequences for his attitude as a scholar of African tradition, which was by no means accepting of the general run of earlier work, or what he called 'dirty gossip' in relation to tribal life. His character Lawino also speaks for him, in some places, on these matters.
He wrote an early novel, Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wi Lobo (1953) in Luo, later translated into English as White Teeth. It concerns the experiences of a young Acholi man moving away from home, to find work and so a wife. He organised an arts festival at Gulu, and then at Kisumu. Subsequently he taught at Makerere University and then was Director of Uganda's National Theatre.
He became unpopular with the Ugandan government, and took teaching posts outside the country. He took part in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1969. He was at the Institute of African Studies of University College, Nairobi from 1971 as a senior research fellow and lecturer, with visiting positions at University of Texas at Austin and University of Ife in Nigeria in 1978/9. He remained in exile during the regime of Idi Amin, returning in 1982 to Makerere University, to teach creative writing.
Apart from his poetry and novels, he also took part in an ongoing debate about the integrity of scholarship on traditional African religion, with the assertion in African Religions in Western Scholarship (1971) that scholars centred on European concerns were "intellectual smugglers". His point, aimed partly at Africans who had had a training in Christian traditions, was that it led to a concentration on matters distant from the actual concerns of Africans; this has been contested by others.
He died of a liver infection. His daughter Jane Okot p'Bitek wrote a Song of Farewell (1994).
The Song of Lawino has been described as one of the most important works of African literature of the 1960s. The Luo original was written in rhymed couplets, and was metrically regular. The English translation, published a decade later in 1966, is in a staccato form of free verse, running to 13 sections and a total of around 5000 lines. It develops from many angles Lawino, the almost-discarded wife of an upwardly-mobile husband, as a persona or type, but also as an individual of great verbal resource who probably reflects the author's mother. Kwame Anthony Appiah remarks in In My Father's House that the specific cultural points made are carried off without the need for much exposition. Given that the form mixes harangue with self-reflection, it is always clear where the argument tends and the context is brought along with the main thrust, whether the issue is cooking, Lawino's relatives being told they cannot drop in unannounced, or the pretensions and fashions of the urban second wife.
Scholars have identified numerous allusions in and sources of Song of Lawino, in Acholi traditional songs. These can be found at the level of particular phrases. They also come from across the range of genres, making the Song of Lawino a cross-section of an entire culture.
The shorter sequel Song of Ocol was less well-received. The self-justification of the ambitious husband had no doubt a satirical and political aim. It has also dated much more quickly, while the many-faceted Lawino, who starts with the comment 'My husband's tongue is bitter', is more likely to become a timeless creation.
In Two Songs, he addressed other issues, in the same style. Song of a Prisoner drew on his reactions to Kenyan politics, and Song of Malaya deals with the life of a prostitute.