When Bill Withers wrote “Lean on Me” in 1972, toying around on a small piano with only the phrase ‘lean on me’ to guide him, he never could have expected the song — about a rural man’s loneliness in the big city — would become an inspirational anthem to those rising up after tragedy, or a celebratory rallying cry of togetherness and resilience in times of trouble.
Following the devastating earthquakes in Haiti in 2010, “Lean on Me” was there. Following the Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, as channeled through Stevie Wonder, “Lean on Me” was there. And as the nation faces its biggest crisis in a century — the coronavirus pandemic — “Lean on Me” is there once again, a hymn for the self-isolated masses and a celebration of the medical professionals risking their own lives to save others.
In the weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak forced nearly all American citizens to adhere to a “Stay Home” order, social media has been deluged with “Lean on Me” viral clips spanning coast to coast, from the U.S., Canada, and beyond.
The West Virginia-born Withers once told Songfacts of “Lean on Me”: “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.”
Once again, “Lean on Me” has crossed all demographic lines. In an apartment building in Dallas, quarantined residents opened their windows and sang “Lean On Me” together (one of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time).
Outside a senior care facility in Calgary, relatives — unable to enter the home due to COVID-19 — instead congregated in cars on an adjacent street and serenaded their loved ones, and the face of what could be the most trying months of their medical careers, hospital staff, nurses and doctors — like at this Memphis hospital — have momentarily escaped the gruesomeness of their days by bonding together and singing the uplifting track:
Just last week, the Minnesota physician dubbed “Dr. Elvis” recently performed the Withers classic on The Today Show, and country singers Tenille Townes, Caylee Hammack and more shared a stripped-down, socially distanced rendition of the track. These tributes, already touching, have now all been emotionally amplified following the death of Withers.
In 2006, in an interview with American Songwriter, Withers hit on why the song connects with people in tumultuous times. “Romantic love you only wanna touch people because they’re pretty and they appeal to you physically. The more substantial kind of love is when you want to touch people and care for them when they’re at their worst.”