Bill Withers and John Prine
Lean on me when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.
In the past days, a nation of musicians and music lovers entered mourning. Last week, the unparalleled talent and extraordinary inspiration that resided in the body of Bill Withers passed forever into the memory and recordings of his great genius. A musician friend of mine explained that there simply is no comparison in music to someone whose first song ever released is a song like “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Still popular to this day, Withers’ first song ever released sold more than a million copies, won a Grammy, and went gold (when that meant a lot more than it does now).
And then his second song to hit was “Lean on Me.” This song took Withers to heights few others achieve. The cultural consciousness around this song, it’s meaning, it’s use, and it’s power lends it to the religious celebration of deeply human understanding and interdependence so many seek so often. And as many of us know, this is reflected by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s decision to include “Lean on Me” in its hymnal Singing the Journey. His career and his achievements exceeded even these I mention here, of course, so I do encourage us all to take some time to learn about Bill Withers and the way he lived his life.
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.
The first time I was introduced to the poetry of John Prine was by Bonnie Raitt who made “Angel from Montgomery” one of her signature songs. The words of longing and of living were part of the magic John Prine brought to the songs he offered the world. The intimacy of his language almost makes a listener feel they are hearing something that perhaps they shouldn’t, that perhaps is private between a person and themselves, that perhaps is sacred.
Prine’s career in some ways did not reflect his influence. His songs did not have the meteoric public success, really, of any of Bill Withers’ hits (few did, of course). But when people like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Roger Waters, and Bonnie Raitt are asked who they admire, who inspires them, they all answer the same: John Prine. No matter how you slice it, if Johnny Cash puts on your music for inspiration, you’ve arrived.
In the coming weeks and months, indeed, already for some of us, we will be remembering and celebrating lives in a concentration and frequency, I dare say, none of us has ever done before. As much as some of us might be looking at numbers, I fear that spending too much time (maybe, any time) with datasets, curves, and charts will distract us from the stories, the contours, and the plots of the lives completing their journeys in these times.
For there are times, my friends, when the lives that reached their end after intersecting with mine are the lives that help me carry on the most. There are times, my friends, when this living is just a hard way to go, and those lives that went before me give me one thing that I can hold on to. And there are times, my friends, like right now, when all that we see makes us that more grateful for every one of the lives that intersects with our own.
And may it ever be so.
Rev. T. J.