The Inspiration Behind the Song Lean On Me



We have seen a lot of violence in the last few weeks, as the American world has been stirred to protest over the death of George Floyd. His death, following on the heels of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, are the two most recent examples of the extreme results of racial attitudes in the US. The roots of these attitudes go back centuries, of course.

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

We’ve seen many videos of police violence posted on social media. We’ve seen many videos of rioting and booting. I am even beginning to see some videos of black on white violence. These constant reminders and fixation on the violent side of humanity don’t help our national mindset as we continue to wrestle with the isolation and fear of the COVID-19 threat and economic recession.

If they make us uncomfortable, that’s probably good thing. If they stir up fear and anger, not so much. The violent videos remind me that violence is not the answer. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear on that (though he warned that violence would continue as long as racial injustice continued). Darkness cannot drive out the darkness.

Long term light and love is what we need – the light of understanding and the love of God who made us all in HIs image.

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

Violence, fear and anger beget more of the same. Once the fire is lit, there’s no telling what will be destroyed in the process. Controlled fire can be used to our advantage, but fire burning out of control and uncontained does not discriminate in its destruction.

Just as violence destroys, love builds up. Love and understanding, though, is something we can build on.

I was thinking about these things as I was listening to NPR on my way to a legal aid clinic I supervise once a month.

The topic of discussion was the life of Bill Withers, the great songwriter of the 1970’s, who died recently at the age of 81. His inspiration behind the song, Lean On Me, is what inspires me today.

Bill Withers grew up in rural West Virginia where he said people helped each other, but the story behind the message and meaning of the song comes from the Deep South. He was driving through rural Alabama on some old tires when one of them blew. He was in the middle of nowhere, and he didn’t have a spare.

As he was sitting there, he saw a large white man approaching him on the dusty road looking like someone right out of the movie deliverance. Knowing the racial history of Alabama, which was still raw at the time, he felt discomfort well up as he saw watched the man walking toward him.

After a brief conversation, the man said he would be right back. Withers didn’t know the man’s intensions or what to expect next, as he waited the man’s return. What could he do? He was stuck. He was helpless.

After a time, the man came walking back over the hill, and in his arms he was carrying a tire.

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

The man helped Withers put the tire on his car, and he was able to go on his way because of the generosity and kindness of a strange man in the middle of nowhere Alabama.

An act of love and kindness can make a lifetime of difference. This experience inspired bill Withers to pend these words:

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

Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, John Legend perform “Lean On Me” at the 2015 Induction Ceremony:

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