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

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Learning How to Die


Dying is a topic most us would rather avoid, but Jesus didn’t shy away from the subject. In fact, he focused on it – maybe because He came to die for us.

I guess I would probably be a bit fixated on the subject if I knew that was the fate that awaited me…. Wait a minute…. that is the fate that awaits me!

Well, maybe it was different for Jesus because it wasn’t just the fate that awaited him; it was among the primary purposes for which he became a man. Though he existed in the form of God, He didn’t hold on to His superior position. He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being born a man. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Simply put – Jesus came to die – for us.

As Jesus neared the time when He would be betrayed into the hands of the tribunal that would seal His death warrant, He said:

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”” (John 12:27-28)

For Jesus, death wasn’t inevitable. He chose to die. This does make him different than us: He chose to become one of us and die for us. And because He chose it, could it have been any different for Him?

Is it really different for us?

Maybe not. If you believe what Jesus said.

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Hard Time Killing Floor

Successive generations find inspiration in Hard Times Killing Floor

Skip James live in TV-Studio 1967

Skip James was born and grew up in Mississippi where his father was a bootlegger who found Jesus and became a preacher. Life was tough for a young black man in rural Mississippi at the turn of the century. Young Skip knew it well as a worker on road crews and levees in his 20’s. He no doubt drew from his experience as inspiration for one of his most famous songs, Hard Time Killing Floor.

 


Skip James’s musical prowess was developed early and was likely honed in his father’s church. His talent was recognized by Paramount which paid for him to travel to Grafton, WI in 1931 to record his songs, including Hard Time Killing Floor. Skip drew his inspiration and style from various sources, from blues to spirituals, bending genres with original and cover compositions, but the latent emotion and authenticity in his music was the substance of his own life.

Hard Time Killing Floor may have been inspired by the slaughterhouses that employed many black men at the time, though it isn’t clear whether Skip James ever worked in one. A blues song by nature, one might imagine a modern day psalmist pouring his heart out to God, expressing the emotional anguish of the drudgery of life under the sun. Inherent in the plaintive heart of the blues, though, is a sorrowful note of hope, a certain resigned peace and satisfaction in the singing of which hope rises above the pain.

Skip’s promising musical career never got off the ground. The Depression smothered the wind under his wings, causing Skip James to turn his attention to directing the choir in his father’s church. He was ordained into the ministry of both the Baptist and Methodist churches at this time. His musical career was quashed before it even started, and not much would likely have survived about Skip James, the musician, if it wasn’t for the blues and folk music revival of the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

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Stairway to Heaven


Stairway to Heaven is, perhaps, my favorite song of all time. I was a big Led Zeppelin fan growing up. A case can be made that Stairway to Heaven is the greatest rock song of all time. It has all the elements of a great song. It has great melody. It has thoughtful, poetic lyrics. It rises and builds from a delicately unforgettable introduction to a crescendo of orchestration that matches the sweep of the lyrics with one of the most iconic guitar solos ever performed.

I am not one of those people who listen to music first for the lyrics. I hear the music first. I may never really learn the lyrics. Sometimes, I can’t even remember the song title. So, as I listened to the song recently, some 45 years or so after I first heard it, I realized that the song is about inspiration and hope. I hadn’t really thought about it much before. I just liked the song.

Like many rock songs, Stairway to Heaven was written with the seemingly eternal exuberance of youth and youthful energy. Though I am much older now, it, still resonates. It’s still sits in the pocket for me. It’s still a song of hope, ultimately, but I now have a different perspective.

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Blind Willie Johnson

Blind Willie Johnson had a profound influence on the world of music. Born in 1887, the son of a Texas sharecropper, his father got him a cigar box guitar at the age of 5. The guitar became his lifelong companion. He was blind by the age of 7. Reports differ on the cause. Perhaps, it’s true that his step-mother splashed water with lye in it on his face in a moment of anger. Whatever the cause, Blind Willie Johnson sang Gospel-infused blues, a craft he honed as a street musician and preacher.


Like many black musicians of his day, he didn’t ever make much money, but his legacy lives on in his music.

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