“Lean on Me” is a very broad song, and people from any type of society, different backgrounds, etc can relate to the lyrics. It became a hit in a variety of formats, from the US and throughout much of the world.
Withers told Songfacts:
“It’s a rural song that translates across demographic 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.”
“When I was in the Navy, I must have been about 18, 19 years old, and I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida. It was a holiday, I had this car that I was able to buy and I was driving up to West Virginia. As is the case with young people with cheap cars, the tires weren’t that great, so one of my tires blew out on this rural Alabama road. This guy comes walking over the hill that looked like he was right out of the movie Deliverance. He says to me, ‘Oh, you had a blowout.’ Well, I didn’t have a spare tire. This guy goes walking back across the hill, and I’m not too comfortable here because I know where I am. He comes back walking with a tire, and he actually helps me put the tire on the car. 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 experience was trying to adjust to a world where that circumstance was not the rule rather than the exception.”
Withers got his first recording not until he was 32 years old, due to him serving the US Navy for nine years, and as a factory worker making parts for airplanes.
“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 eight 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. 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 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.”
About the song, Wither explained:
“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. In the course of doing the music, that phrase crossed my mind, so then you go back and say, ‘OK, I like the way that 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?’ 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.”
Wither was a well-known lyricist where you can understand his linens easily, however, he had described himself as a “Lyrics Snob,” explaining:
“It’s very difficult to make things simple and understandable. You ever sit down and have a conversation with somebody who took their formal education too seriously, and they’re speaking and throwing in a bunch of words that you don’t have a ready meaning for?
You’re sitting there nodding because you don’t want them to think you’re stupid, but what you really think is, there’s a lot of easier ways to say it, and you wonder if they even know what they’re talking about or if they’re just showing off. 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. Somebody said a long time ago that the world was designed by geniuses, but it’s run by idiots.
I’m a stickler for saying something the simplest possible way with some elements of poetry. 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. The key is to make somebody not only remember it, but recall it over and over and over again. When you mention that some stuff I have written has lasted a long time, I think that’s because it’s re-accessible.
That’s why the simpler forms of music, which are my favorites, like country music and the blues and stuff that states something in a way that everybody can understand and you remember it. There are lines that are so profound, like ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,’ or Billy Joel’s ‘I love you just the way you are.’ I heard this country song the other day that really stuck to my ribs, and it was just a simple phrase – ‘And when the time comes for you to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.’ You can’t say that any better. When I say I’m a snob lyrically, that means, how clear can you make it and in how few words.”
Listen to the song below: