Long but worth reading (I hope)

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Early one morning in our kitchen and waiting for the tea bags to sufficiently leach, I turned on the radio. A well-known song had just started which normally would not distract me but this morning, it did. It stopped me and made me listen all the way through until it had finished. A testament to great song writing because it meant that we had cups of tea that were not quite hot enough – a grave crime on these shores.

When we think of the great singer songwriters of the last fifty years; a raft of usual suspects spring to mind.

Elvis, Elton John, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Lennon and McCartney, Roy Orbison, Nile Rodgers… The list goes on and you get my point.

And if we refine our search to black artists, then Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole… The list goes on and you get my point.

But how many lists would include Bill Withers?

The word genius should always be used sparingly and particularly so pertaining to the arts where hyperbole is almost a default. That said, it seems to me that Bill Withers might be that rare thing in the arts and genuinely a genius?

Read on and decide for yourself.

Depending on your age, it could well be that you haven’t even heard of him, although I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard his music; arguably, some of the greatest pop songs. This is subjective of course but his music will certainly endure and it clearly has the power to make us stop and listen and to think.

And in this instance, feel a need to write about it.

Undoubtedly, it is music which alters listeners mood and makes them feel good. This alone is a feat and a great legacy to leave.

Bill Withers was truly a talented man.

The song in question – the one which ruined our morning tea is Lean on Me.

Perhaps his most famous song and much loved by so many. A song I have heard countless times and so I wonder how its power hasn’t really occurred to me until now. What stopped me that morning were the lyrics – and before I explain why, a little context and a quick nod to the luminaries already mentioned.

Quite possibly, some of you are raging at inclusions and omissions. What, no Sinatra or Neil Diamond? Jonny Mathis, Bing Crosby...

All duly considered but omitted because these stars were merely singers. By this, I don’t mean to demean the voice. I can’t hold a tune but my point is that a great many people can. Every cruise ship afloat our oceans has a raft of singers on board who can all smash a room. But only a hallowed few can write the music that moves us. And fewer still, who can write such songs and sing them also.

Bill Withers was one.

And so to his lyrics – and in particular, Lean on Me.

I know almost nothing about music, (which I might have proved already in this post) but I do know something about words and their power. Withers had a masterly command of words. I would reason as powerful as many of our great poets.

Great songwriters are remarkable because they need to be so economic. Authors can indulge. They are afforded as many words as they desire to create but songwriters must work with ruthless efficiency and still, their impact can be so profound. Billy Joel’s Piano Man is a remarkable example. Listen to that song and tell me you're not in that bar putting bread in his jar.

Lean on Me is the same.

I reproduce the song’s lyrics here – but before you read them, allow me to highlight what I think is their power.

Broadly, it is the song’s overall message – that we need to help one another; a moral which is  highlighted and distinguished by the simplicity of the words. It is a unifying song and very much a song for our times when we are seemingly so divided.

Similarly, the melody is simple, with so few chords. I imagine it is a cinch to play, even a novice musician.

But this is not to say it is a simple song – or that writing something as ‘simple’ is easy. If it were simple, then we would all be doing it. I would argue the very opposite. That to write a song so seemingly simple and yet so powerful (that can force an Englishman to ruin his tea) is a fiendishly difficult feat to pull off.

I have noticed this with my son, Sam and the songs he plays on piano; how so many of the most famous pop songs are so straight forward. Much of the Beatles canon wouldn’t trouble even a basic musician – and yet, they are indelible melodies.

To the lyrics then…

I reproduce them here in full to read (and possibly sing along to) and then again below and with my personal takes…

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won't let show

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend
I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on

*

I should say that these lyrics resonate even more for their slow delivery. Sung so slowly, they are almost spoken because perhaps he knew how important they were?

To the lyrics then and my interpretation…

*

Sometimes in our lives we all have pain

A bold opening statement that rings true. Does anyone not have pain? Of course not.

We all have pain. Both physical and emotional. We all understand the reality of pain and how we try to quell it.

We all have sorrow 

Grief, regret, guilt, remorse…

But if we are wise

I like his use of the word, “but

It implies that Bill has a solution for us and that he is about to explain to us a way to deal with our pain. Immediately then, it is a line of great hope.

“…if we are wise

Wisdom is one of the few upsides of getting old. Wisdom is acquired with experience and heeding mistakes and why young people are wise if they listen to their elders and don’t dismiss them.

We know that there's always tomorrow 

Tomorrow is a new day. And who knows what it might bring?

This is most self-help books distilled in to one single line. Live for today. Don’t let the past inform the present…

Lean on me, when you're not strong

The word ‘lean’ is evocative. Leaning is not being carried.

In life, we shouldn’t want to be carried but equally we shouldn’t mind being helped.

Leaning is being helped. It is dignified and it is mutually beneficial because it is a shared experience.

When you’re not strong

Another truism. Because we are all fallible. Everyone has moments when they falter and in these moments we need help. We will need to lean on someone or something.

And I'll be your friend

The power of this line is implicit and doesn’t need my explanation.

A challenge for you though, can you think of five other such simple words with as much power.

I'll help you carry on

And carry on we must. All of us. We only fail when we give up. The show must go on.

For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on

This three line refrain sums up being human. In essence; no matter how accomplished we are, we cannot do everything alone – and that all of us - at some point will need help. All of us will need to lean.

Please swallow your pride

Pride can be an affliction and why it is one of the deadly sins. Pride prevents us acknowledging weaknesses – without which we are in danger of not recognising when we need to lean (help).

If I have things you need to borrow 

Friendship again and the beauty that comes from sharing.

For no one can fill those of your needs
That you won't let show

A further nod to pride and self-awareness – to allow people to see our vulnerabilities and needs or else, we cannot be helped.

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand

Such plain words – ‘Brother’ and ‘Hand’ and yet so profound and evocative.

We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you'll understand

A plea for help; an essential admission if we are to be our best selves.  

We all need somebody to lean on

The word WE.

*

Even the title of his song - Lean on Me - is noteworthy.

It is as kindly and welcoming as the song itself – listen to it now – and see if you agree.

It is song that makes me feel happy, secure, needed, included, assured… and above all else, it makes me feel hopeful.

A remarkable song, by a remarkable man. Possibly the most unheralded singer songwriters of his generation – which he had a hand in by the quiet and unassuming way that he lived.

When he died earlier this year, it shocked me because I hadn’t realised that he was still alive. In fact, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know anything about him. I didn’t know what he looked like. I would recognise Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye or Louis Armstrong. But not Bill Withers. I assumed he was black but I didn’t know for sure. Not really.

Bill Withers loved writing music but he eschewed fame and the trappings that his great talent could have provided for him.

We are used to seeing so many talented individuals but who are also seemingly as flawed. Almost that with great talent comes great destruction and often accounts for their early demise: Jackson, Prince, Phoenix, Cobain, Ledger, Dean, Winehouse, Houston, Mercury, Warhol, Presley, Hendrix…

And it is rare then when someone so blessed is able to live out a normal life and almost in obscurity.

His life lives on, however with Lean on Me, Lovely Day, Aint no Sunshine, Grandma’s Hands…

Listen to Lean on Me and accept my challenge.

With so few words and so few chords – put forward anything in the English language as moving and as profound.

No doubt, there are examples, but you’ll be hard pushed to find it.

 

 

 

 

 

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24 Comments

  1. Santoshini July 26, 2020
    Reply

    This was without doubt one of the best blogs you have ever written.Such beautiful lines 🙂

  2. Mya July 26, 2020
    Reply

    That’s why I love music even like you said if it’s just a simple song it can hold so much value and meaning and emotion. It can even help people music is a amazing gift

  3. Jacquie July 26, 2020
    Reply

    The movie Lean on Me is great as well! Starring the great Morgan Freeman the song is featured as well of course throughout the movie. The age old question which came first the chicken or the egg? The song or the movie? Was the song written for that movie or was the movie written with the ideas and eloquently chosen words put into action for the movie. I better google it as I have no clue. Great blog Dom one of my favorite songs too!

  4. Sydnee Coleman July 26, 2020
    Reply

    This was not your usual lovely blog Mr. H, this was a breathtaking view of a beautiful song which I have heard countless times, and it has moved me every time I listen to it but I never thought of what the words meant or how they made me feel. I just knew the song struck a chord within me every time I heard it, but reading your blog and then listening to it again for my morning, I actually cried a little, thinking of all the people who allowed me to lean on them in my time of struggles and pain. Now there is no shame in crying during a song, which is shown to you in new light, right? Mr. H?

    • Dom July 26, 2020
      Reply

      quite right Sydnee, no disgrace in a lean at all.

  5. Vatika July 26, 2020
    Reply

    This blog did not feel long. It put a smile on my face. Thank you.

  6. Nick July 26, 2020
    Reply

    A very inspiring blog as well as a wonderful song that I would recognize anywhere. “Lean On Me” truly paints a wonderful picture of the human spirit and what everybody yearns for in life – a person to turn to in times of trouble. This message is perfect given the crisis currently going on and was truly a great read. Well done, Dominic, well done!

    • Dom July 26, 2020
      Reply

      Thank you Nicholas. Glad it struck.

  7. Emily F July 26, 2020
    Reply

    “That can force an Englishman to ruin his tea”, had me laughing. Thank you for writing a blog every Sunday and making my week.

    P.S Just bought the fruit bowl of amazon prime :).

  8. sofia b July 26, 2020
    Reply

    it was a pleasure read this blog, i love your blogs and i find them very interesting i hope that u keep written them because they are inspired me more than u can imagine

  9. Lauren Dignam July 26, 2020
    Reply

    This put a smile on my face and definitely brightened my Sunday. There is something very special and profound about music. It is so accessible that even people who don’t know very much about it can take something of value and meaning from it. Lovely words of wisdom and hope, something we all need to hold onto and cherish in our lives.

  10. Keisha July 26, 2020
    Reply

    I am quite young, in my teenage years. But I love listening to “old” music because I feel like they have a story and message that allows me to move on from hard times and learn with those songs. Lean on me has been such an inspiration to me and after reading your blog and listening to this song again, it made my day and made me want to help the people in need around me. Thank you so much for writing this blog and making me realize the power of humanity and helping each other!

  11. Lena July 26, 2020
    Reply

    I didn’t know I needed this song. This is what i like about your blogs, you share your thoughts with us. Thank you.

  12. Anastasiia Denysenko July 26, 2020
    Reply

    Mr. Holland,
    I would like to thank you for this beautiful article! I felt every word with you. What a great power the music has. When the whole world stops, it just… Continues. I can relate to everything you said, powerful lyrics are literally the best thing possible. What would we do without our great songwriters. They keep everything together.

    I love how you talk about music and lyrics. I remember one day I heard Ed Sheeran’s song and stopped everything to listen to it. That’s what music does to us — makes us stop and move on after the pause. That is truly beautiful.

    I send you the warmest hugs from Ukraine.
    Thank you for what you feel.

  13. Beth July 26, 2020
    Reply

    Given my age, I am glad that this blog is one of the most empowering and relatable ones I have read. Mum and Dad have always played music of all genres (to the point that instead of being a 2yo obsessed with Sesame Street songs, I had an obsession with No Doubt and Bon Jovi).
    In Year 7, my maths/music teacher said “If you remember lyrics from a song, that song has a special meaning in your heart- even if you don’t know what it is”. Lean on Me is just one of those songs that resonates with everyone in some way, shape or form.
    Absolutely beautifully written song and blog

  14. Rachel Conrad July 26, 2020
    Reply

    I feel so bad because when I hear this song, I hear the “Glee” version- definitely the generation gap talking. At least I can say I love Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Loved the analysis though! You should do more. It’s cool to see how much music speaks to people, and how someone’s perspective might have more to add.

  15. Sara July 27, 2020
    Reply

    Lovely Day is my favourite song of all time, which introduced me to Bill Withers. A writer of great simplicity and therefore great power. I’m glad that you, by writing this blog, will bring his work to those that may not have heard him before. Thanks Dom.

  16. Faaiz July 28, 2020
    Reply

    Great interpretation, Dom.
    I used to be so full of myself before but when I made mistakes where other misunderstood me, I learned that I have to be very careful with how I use my words. We are all humans and we all make mistakes but if we are willing to learn from them and avoid those mistakes in the future then we become stronger, mentally. I used to be a very nervous person, not so outgoing, did not have many friends and often picked on where I felt I couldn’t defend myself. However, when I started taking Martial Arts classes (taekwondo), I learned so much, how to interact with people and making the right decisions. I actually used to have panic attacks because of the ONE thing I tweeted during my high school year. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, I guess it was subjective but ultimately a lot of people turned on me and started talking bad stuff. I started getting really stressed about it, then I got in depression mode where I couldn’t sleep for 2 nights and then I got panic attacks. I could not go to school for a week after. Of course there were people who defended me, some of my friends but I eventually learned from my mistakes and after a long break I started using twitter again and started having a new approach and became more positive on life. I guess when people are vulnerable like young celebs, sometimes they need the support of fans to encourage them and to stay true to themselves and what they believe in.
    I love this blog!! Nice to reflect on what you wrote or typed.

  17. Tiffany August 6, 2020
    Reply

    This was wonderful. Thank you. And now I’m going to go listen to Lean On Me and also restart my tea kettle…

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