“We talk of poetry in such an abstract way because most of us are bad poets.” —Nietzsche
I loved this note from Ethan Hein about the final day of his songwriting course, which ended with “a spontaneous singalong” of “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers.
“I consider it to be the best American song recorded in the past hundred or so years,” Hein writes. “I made the case that it would make a better national anthem than our current terrible one.”
Here is a video of Withers singing it on the BBC in 1974:
Bill Withers talked to SongFacts.com about writing the tune:
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?”
Withers maintained that the song came from where he came from: West Virginia, “a place where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid” than the people he noticed in big cities. Withers called it “a rural song that translates,” and he told a story about having a blow-out on an Alabama back road and somebody helping him.
I spent some time yesterday listening to “Lean on Me” and transcribing the lyrics on my typewriter.
When Withers died, I shared a few lines from the song and noted how incredible it was that he spun songs out of such simple, everyday language.
In the same SongFacts interview from above, Withers said that he was “a snob” about lyrics.
It’s very difficult to make things simple and understandable… To me, the biggest challenge in the world is to take anything that’s complicated and make it simple so it can be understood by the masses…. When I say I’m a snob lyrically, I mean I’m a snob in the sense that I’m a stickler for saying something the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry. Because simple is memorable. If something’s too complicated, you’re not going to walk around humming it to yourself because it’s too hard to remember.
He said his music was enduring because it was “re-accessible,” people could recall it. He said, “I don’t walk around with a piece of paper in my hand all the time, so if I don’t remember it, it means it wasn’t very memorable so it’s probably in the wind somewhere.”
But he also said that you have to be careful, because the process can’t be totally explained:
There’s an X-factor that we all function under. And that has nothing to do with you, it’s an accident of birth. That’s the gift that you have. That’s why it’s called a gift, it means you can’t go out and buy it, you can’t go out and get it from anybody, it has to be given to you. I’m doing the best I can trying to explain this stuff, but I don’t have any explanation as to what separates me from anybody else, except certain things were given to me. The real and most profound answer to anything you’ve asked me – why did you say this or why did you that – is because it crossed my mind. Why did it cross my mind versus crossing your mind or anybody else’s mind?
He then joked about the irony that when he first wrote the song, nobody would shut up long enough to listen to it, and now everybody wants to know about it!
The whole interview is worth reading.
Related reading: “Heading out for Wonderful”