So pleased to welcome Thom Hickey of The Immortal Jukebox with some of the posts from his archives. This week the story and music of Bill Withers, in particular the track Lean on Me. Thom explores the lyrics and their meaning to all of us who have no need to stand alone when there are people we can lean on to lend a hand.
Bill Withers – The Better Angels by Thom Hickey
‘A good man out of the treasure of his heart bringeth forth good things’ (Matthew)
‘Lean on me when you’re not strong and I’ll help you to carry on’ (BIll Withers)
Bill Withers stuttered painfully as a boy and young man which meant he didn’t say much. What he did do was listen carefully and thoughtfully to the people around him in his family and his community.
Bill was born and brought up in poor blue collar West Virginia mining communities where every day was a struggle with the constant background threat of injury and disaster.
In such communities loyalty, mutual reliance and co-operation were not painted storybook virtues but living realities. People worked with and for each other so that everyone’s burden would be a little lighter and thus more bearable.
Bill was and is a proud working man who knows the labourer is worthy of his hire and worth listening to.
After leaving home at 17 Bill spent 9 years in the US Navy where once again you learned that if you wanted your back covered you had to perform the same service for your comrade – buddy or not. Your life literally was often in your brother’s hands.
He also listened with intent and attention to the songs he heard in church and on the radio. His imagination became infused with the enduring restorative grace of gospel, the energising pulse of rhythm and blues and the sweet balm of soul music. Bill was storing wisdom and treasure in his heart and when the stuttering stopped his voice came through loud and clear.
Bill Withers would draw from a deep well of resources to write and perform songs that would always be fresh and relevant because they addressed fundamental questions about how our lives were and should be lived.
Which is to say that in many senses Bill Withers’ vocation combined that of a songwriter and singer with that of a preacher ministering to his community through the uplifting medium of music.
The prolific country songwriter Harlan Howard defined the essence of a great song as three chords and the truth and that’s exactly what Bill Withers offers us in his wonderfully vivid songbook.
Lean on Me is a simple song that tells an eternal truth. We all have pain, we all have sorrow: we all need someone to lean on. It opens with plain repeated piano stabs calling the listener to attention – listen up I got something to say!
The melody and rhythm echo the tradition of a gospel service: state your theme, tell your story through examples we can all recognise from our daily lives then call on the audience to respond. Invite your listeners to testify that the seemingly unbearable can be borne if you call out to your brother or if your sister calls out to you – ‘I’ll help you carry on’.
Show that we can all be the leaning post for our brother or sister in need .. ‘I’m just right up the road, I’ll share your load if you just call me.’ For, as long as the moon lasts we are all bound to stumble and fall in this life – it’s just a question of who falls when and how far and whether a helping hand and load bearing shoulder will be at hand to help you up and lead you on.
The foolishly proud always think they can stand up alone while the wise now that with help we can all make it through today’s troubles to tomorrow.
Lean on me acknowledges, indeed celebrates our weakness and vulnerability but also our strength. We are supplicants but we are also enablers, uplifters and restorers.
Yes, life will batter us and nobody walks in the sunshine all through their life but if we are honest, admit to our difficulties and failings and call for help we can be amazed that others are ready to come to our aid. Family, fraternity and faith in each other will get us through.
Of course, where a song is concerned having good intentions and a good moral to impart does not mean that the song will live. And, if a song does not live, get up and walk by itself on its own merits, then you won’t capture your audience, won’t get them to listen once – let alone sing along and punch that number on the jukebox. Lean on Me passes this test easily: it’s a wonderful up and walking living song!
First and foremost Bill Withers’ warm, supple and alluring voice commands your attention and wins your allegiance – you want to listen to what this man has to say. This is the voice of a strong, mature man with hard miles over rough ground on the clock.
Yet, it’s the voice of an optimistic man ready to roll up his sleeves and face unafraid whatever challenges the next day will bring. So, when Bill Withers sings you listen and when he calls out for you to respond you find that before you’ve realised it you’re singing : ‘We all need someone to lean on’
The song proceeds at a stately pace like a great powerful train allowing lolly gagging passengers plenty of time to get on board – confident they are in safe hands and will arrive at the right destination at the appointed time – the driver clearly knows what he’s doing.
As,’Lean on Me’ develops in come the most primal musical accompaniment of all – hand claps. These are organically perfect in context: a song addressing our common humanity using the, ‘instrument’ even the most musically illiterate can at least assay when enthused. On record Bill uses the hand clap as a propulsive encourager of the spirit of the song, ‘Come on! This way’.
In concert it is unimaginable that the bands hand claps aren’t swelled by all of those in the audience. By now everybody is on board the train and seeing themselves as one body – whatever seat they happen to be in.
As the song moves forward the strings come in to emphasise the swelling strength that acknowledged common vulnerability can unlock – ‘Call on me brother’ and we will get through, we will get through – together.
This is a song, without doubt as time has proven, an anthem, that proclaims our individuality and our community membership should not be warring forces but aspects of a natural, nurturing whole. That’s what Bill and, ‘Lean on Me’ are – nurture for our humanity.
The greatest ever political leader once put it this way a century or so before Bill, ‘We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies.’. That is how we will find the better angels of our nature.
Abraham Lincoln said that. Or to put it another way:
‘You just call on me, brother, when you need a hand
We all need someone to lean on.’
Bill Withers said that. I doubt that popular music has ever had a truer or more passionate guide to our better angels than Bill Withers.
Notes, Comments and further listening:
Lean on Me was written and produced by Bill Withers and recorded in 1972.
The musicians featured were James Gadson on drums, Ray Jackson on keyboards, Benorce Blackman on guitar and Melvin Dunlap on bass.
Lean on Me was a Number One record on both the R&B chart and the Hot 100 Billboard US charts.
Bill Wither’s catalogue is filled with powerful melodic songs and taut performances. His first two albums, ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Still Bill’ are essential components of any record collection. Songs like the warm, witty and wise ‘Grandma’s Hands’ and the gloriously evocative and consoling, ‘Aint No Sunshine’ are undeniable classics.
‘Bill Withers at Carnegie Hall’ is among the very greatest live records with superlative singing and musicianship responding to an audience that is thrilled to celebrate in his company.
Sony have recently reissued the complete Bill Withers catalogue which is widely available at a ridiculously cheap price given the eternity shale it contains.
You can buy Bill Withers at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Bill-Withers/e/B000AQ30ZQ
About Thom Hickey
Thom Hickey one of the blessed 50s baby boomer generation, was born in London into an Irish family and formally educated at catholic schools and Cambridge University. More importantly he was informally educated by the BBC, The Observer, The New Statesman and The New Yorker. His music professors were radio giants Charlie Gillett, John Peel and Emperor Rosko. The print columns of Richard Williams, Ian MacDonald and Tony Russell were religiously read and annotated.
Further intensive study was conducted at the Hammersmith Odeon, the Hope and Anchor, the 100 Club, Ronnie Scott’s and the Rainbow. Many investment portfolios were foresworn in favour of sourcing recorded treasures from the hallowed halls of HMV, Colletts, Tower and Virgin Records and mail order outfits galore.
He has a continuing belief that you can never watch too many Westerns or Ken Burns documentaries, read enough biographies about Samuel Beckett or Buster Keaton and that there is always just one more Bob Dylan bootleg he needs.
To finance his obsessions he has worked in financial recruitment, as a charity campaigner and been a senior investigator into complaints about the NHS. He now lives deep in the Surrey woods with his beautiful wife, graceful daughter and inspirational son.
Connect to Thom
My thanks to Thom for sharing this background to Bill Withers and his thought provoking analysis of Lean on Me…one of my favourite tracks.
If you have some festive posts in your archives from Christmas Past.. why not pass them along to me for December – email@example.com