“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers
“Lean on Me”, as originally rendered by Bill Withers, came out in 1971, a time when the Civil Rights Movement was still very much hot. As such, some have interpreted it as being related to the said struggle. However, based on Bill’s own explanation, this piece doesn’t have anything to do with Black people per se. Rather, what it is based on is his experiences growing up in a part of West Virginia known as Slab Fork.
Slab Fork is a community which, as of the writing of this post, barely has more than 200 residents. However the said ‘hood, where mining is the main occupation, had seen better times and likely as a result higher population numbers. But either way, it’s still a small town in the truest sense of the word.
And as detailed by Bill Withers, growing up there was a lot more different than, say what he witnessed later in Los Angeles. Or put differently, as far as interpersonal relationships go, it was like the ideal community, a place where “people were a little more attentive to each other [and] less afraid”. Or phrased alternatively, Bill not only sang “lean on me” but grew up in an environment where such was practiced, thus giving him the background to do so in the first place.
Lyrics of “Lean on Me”
But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way comes the actual lyrics. And truthfully, the first verse has nothing to do with interpersonal relationships. Instead it’s more of a philosophical nature, with the singer pointing out that hardships, i.e. “pain” and “sorrow”, are unavoidable. But he closes out the passage by also acknowledging that “there’s always tomorrow”, as in the future may not be a reflection of the present.
Or as some people would say, ‘no adversity is permanent’. And that’s some powerful language to use in this context. This is because it implies that the addressee may be dealing with a serious, perhaps even suicidal level of depression.
Now if you were in trouble and someone came and said “lean on me”, it may be obvious that they’re willing to lend support. But at the same time that and other statements like “I’ll help you carry on”, as found in the chorus, are pretty ambiguous in terms of the aid being offered.
I’ll Assist You
So the second verse gets more specific in terms of what Bill is talking about. And yes, he is in part alluding to financial assistance, i.e. ‘borrowing’. Later, the bridge further indicates that he’s offering mentoring assistance, i.e. advice, as well, if such is a problem that requires ‘understanding’ as opposed to something more material.
Additionally, the singer is able to perceive that sometimes pride gets in the way of people asking for help, despite the fact that they may direly need it. So he is telling the addressee to cast such aside, as he’s more than willing to be of aid if the situation calls for it.
And maybe, on one hand, it may seem that the vocalist is not truly a friend since ‘borrowing’, i.e. assistance that is to be reimbursed in the future, is offered. But of course in the grand scheme of the song such is beside the point. Rather reading in between, the vocalist is offering any type of help the addressee asks for.
Or let’s say, as illustrated in the third verse, he is offering to “share the load” of his brethren, not carry it for him per se. So he’s not treating the addressee like a charity case in the truest sense of the word. Or rather, let’s say that Bill is not going to let his friend give up. Instead, the point is that he’s ever ready to be a selfless friends when the situation may call for it.
Is the Addressee really in dire need of support?
To be perfectly honest, the lyrics do not really read as if the addressee is in any type of predicament at the moment. Rather the point being made is that if such does materialize, he should not hesitate to call on the vocalist.
And it’s as if the vocalist is really trying to drive that message home because if he doesn’t, then he’s afraid that the addressee will in fact be too ashamed if such a scenario arises, as in being more willing to suffer and feel sorry for himself as opposed to adopting a more humble disposition and requesting aid.
And that, perhaps more so than any other factor, may be why “Lean on Me” is seen as a universal song of support. Indeed even though we find the word “brother” in the bridge, the actual relationship between the singer and addressee is never harped really harped on. So with that in mind, theoretically they can even be strangers.
The Conclusion of “Lean on Me”
And perhaps at the end of the day, we can say that the lesson of this song is sorta like it doesn’t hurt to ask for help. But of course such a sentiment is predicated on having someone around willing to help in the first place. And this piece is also such that it may encourage listeners to themselves to offer assistance if you need be, since at the end of the day “we all need somebody to lean on”.
Facts about “Lean on Me”
Being released on 21 April 1972, “Lean on Me” was the lead single from Bill’s sophomore album, Still Bill. The said undertaking went on to reach number one on what is today known as Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Meanwhile “Lean on Me” itself topped the Billboard Hot 100 and its counterpart of that day, the Cash Box Top 100. It achieved this in addition to making it onto the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart.
It can easily be considered the late Bill Withers’ signature song, despite the fact that he dropped quite a few American classics. In fact “Lean on Me” went on to be placed on Rolling Stones’ 21st century ranking of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
Bill Withers (1938-2020) was a soul singer who actually developed an interest in music while a member of the US Navy, serving his country for nearly a decade in that regard. On top of “Lean on Me”, the 1970s bore witness to him come out with other big hits such as:
- Grandma’s Hands
- Ain’t No Sunshine
- Lovely Day
- Just the Two of Us alongside Grover Washington Jr.
None of those songs were likewise featured on Still Bill, which was by far Withers’ most-successful studio album out of the eight he came out with. And by the time the mid-1980s rolled around, he for the most part retired from making music.
However one of the notable moments that came in his career afterwards was in 1988 when “Lean on Me”, as performed by R&B act Club Nouveau, won a Grammy Award in the category of Best Rhythm and Blues Song, which was actually awarded to Bill Withers as the sole writer of this piece. And to note, he also produced his own original version of the song.
Also one can’t forget the Lean on Me movie that came out in 1989 starring Morgan Freeman, whose title was in fact derived directly from this song.
Amongst the legendary musicians who have covered this tune throughout the years include Stevie Wonder, Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, Sheryl Crows, Al Green, etc.
Withers ultimately passed away at age 81 in 2020, with three Grammys under his belt as well as having been enshrined in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Bill was backed instrumentally on the track by an act known as the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
The label behind this track is Sussex Records, who Withers signed to in 1970, back when he was still more of an amateur musician. In fact even after blowing up, he opted to keep his day job due to the volatility of the music biz.