Last night, in a text conversation with Michael Tino, we got to talking about our frustrations with some of the arrangements in Singing the Journey, in part because some of the songs come out of popular music and many members have memories of the originals (or of well-known covers). And thus, when we get to the arrangements here, and they don’t go places we expect them to, congregants and songleaders alike stumble and get a little confused. It’s like the day I heard “Stairway to Heaven” on Musak… it was familiar, but weirdly arranged and wildly confusing.
In this conversation last night, I said “wait until we get to ‘Lean on Me'”…. and then saw it was coming up today. No need to wait! Here we go… diving headlong into an earnest but terribly confusing arrangement of the Bill Withers classic.
First, let’s get one thing straight here: it’s an amazing song, perfect for our time and all time. We need this message, this reminder – not only that others are there, but that we can be there for others. I love the commitment that this song asks us to make, and the space it makes for us to lean into that commitment, that covenant, that we can lean on each other, we can call on each other to be present for us.
Now before we get too far, let’s listen to Bill Withers (or we’re just gonna be all kinds of distracted by the ear worm):
After the lyrics, I’ll share part of an interview with Withers talking about this song, but first, I need to talk about our arrangement.
Bless his heart, David Moran tried to make this fit a typical hymn form – verses and chorus. Somehow the bridge got tacked on, but the dénouement – “call me” – is omitted. And while the accompaniment is well written, the arrangement of this song that’s emblazoned upon our minds is in conflict with the music on the page. And then we wonder why it doesn’t work to sing it in our congregations.
And the truth is this – except for the “call me” – all the pieces are here, and many accompanists can rearrange the parts on the pages a bit to make it match the songwriter’s intent and our memories. I’ve put the lyrics in as Withers has it in his original recording, but the lyrics (minus “call me”) are as printed in STJ.
Sometimes in our lives
we all have pain,
we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise
we know that there’s
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.
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’d understand.
We all need somebody to lean on.
If there is a load
you have to bear
that you can’t carry,
I’m right up the road,
I’ll share your load
if you just call me.
Call me… call me…
In researching for today’s post, I ran across an amazing interview with Bill Withers at SongFacts, conducted in 2004. He says this about the song:
A lot of time you go back and fill in the blanks. This was my second album, so I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano. So I bought a little piano and I was sitting there just running my fingers up and down the piano. That’s often the first song that children learn to play because they don’t have to change fingers – you just put your fingers in one position and go up and down the keyboard. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, “OK, I like the way this phrase, Lean On Me, sounds with this song.” So you go back and say, “How do I arrive at this as a conclusion to a statement? What would I say that would cause me to say Lean On Me?” Then at that point, it’s between you and your actual feelings, you and your morals and what you’re really like. You probably do more thinking about it after it’s done.
Being from a rural, West Virginia setting, that kind of circumstance would be more accessible to me than it would be to a guy living in New York where people step over you if you’re passed out on the sidewalk, or Los Angeles, where you could die on the side of the freeway and it would probably be 8 days before anyone noticed you were dead. Coming from a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid, that would cue me to have those considerations than somebody from a different place. I think what we say is influenced by how we are, what’s been our life experiences. Now, I notice young guys writing about shooting each other in the city and stuff like that, well that was not my experience, so I would never have said anything like that because it was not my experience. I’m not from a big city. I think circumstance dictates what people think.
I’m from an environment where it was practical to do that. That’s probably why somebody from New York did not write that song, or somebody from London, or somebody from a large city. It’s a rural song that translates probably across demographical lines. Who could argue with the fact that it would be nice to have somebody who really was that way? My experience was, there were people who were that way.
They would help you out. Even in the rural South. There were people who would help you out even across racial lines. Somebody who would probably stand in a mob that might lynch you if you pissed them off, would help you out in another way.
So, just like the whole American experience, it’s very complex and it has it’s own little rules and stuff. I thought it was funny when everybody got worked up over Strom Thurmond having this daughter, and I thought, “What else is new?” It depends on your socialization. My socialization was, it was very likely and very practical to expect a “Lean On Me” circumstance to exist. My adjustment was not adjusting to that circumstance probably being real and probable, my experience was trying to adjust to a world where that circumstance was not the rule rather than the exception.
It was powerful to read, knowing we’re not there anymore. And knowing that this song makes space for that kind of world to exist again.
May it be so.
There are still plenty of people devoting their lives to helping each other–family, friends, and strangers–in cities, too, and the danger of getting shot instead of being helped is certainly true in the South, too (look at gun-owning statistics and shooting statistics). And there are plenty of songs that come out of rural backgrounds about shooting, too, not just out of New York and other big cities. That said (sorry, had to get it off my chest), the problems of getting music down on the page– pop, folk, and other music that many people learn orally from all kinds of versions–is a central one not only in this hymnal. It’s pretty uncomfortable for a pianist confronting a song new to the pianist, making a good effort to read it from the page, and then being told (as if there was stupidity or ineptness involved) “that’s not the way it goes”. And some pop music that’s familiar to a large group of people may not be familiar to someone older, or younger, or from a different cultural background. A difficult problem!