Written in the late 60s, the song conjures images of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam. In fact, every year when I teach Vietnam, I use music to tell the story and “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother” highlights 1970, the year of it’s release. However, for me, the song has nothing to do with Vietnam.
For me, the song is about my brother.
My brother, Christopher, had recently turned three when he was tragically stuck and killed by a car in 1974. I was just a month away from turning six and, although it had happened almost 40 years ago, the details of that day are seared into my memory as if it had occurred not years, but moments ago. If I close my eyes I can still see that sunny Sunday afternoon. My brother was riding his big wheel; I could see him from the top of an A-frame tree house recently constructed in a friend’s back yard. In my excitement over the tree house, I called out to him. A train had recently rumbled along the tracks behind the house. Other children were playing, their laughs could be heard echoing throughout the neighborhood.
And then…..then our lives changed forever.
It’s not something I often talk about. In fact, I didn’t talk about it much growing up. I kept to myself.
It was in music where I found refuge.
I may not have understood the true meaning of the song at the time, but the refrain struck a chord. I thought the song was about losing a brother and being sad about it. Olivia sang it so mournfully. And so beautifully. It must have been about me.
If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness.
I listened to the song whenever I could. When it came on the reel to reel my parents had, I stopped and listened. When I got older, I played it myself—sometimes over and over.
Most people are familiar with the more famous Hollies version. I, however, wouldn’t be aware of that version for many years. But when I bought The Hollies’ Greatest Hits on cassette in the early 80s, it would be that version that would carry me through the next decade or so. As a teacher, I would play the Hollies’ version to my classes. My students may have been thinking about Vietnam, but not me. I sat in the back of the classroom, thinking about my brother. Sometimes doing all I could to hold back the tears, staring at the image I had placed on the overhead of a soldier carrying a wounded comrade through the jungle.
I recently became familiar with the very first recording of the song. Neil Diamond actually recorded the song before the Hollies, but would release it later. It appears on his 1970 release Tap Root Manuscript, which I just recently picked up in a used record store. Although it is the oldest, my relationship with Neil Diamond’s version is still in its infancy. But I like it. In many ways, it is better than the Hollies version. It is better than Olivia’s. Neil Diamond may not be the best singer, but his voice exudes emotion. As a man in my early 40s, it is this version that I turn to more often. It speaks to me in a way the others don't.
My brother would have turned 40 this year. As I get older, his presence in my life grows more significant. I look upon my two boys and sometimes see subtle reflections of Chris. When you think about it, people never really die---they live on in our lives in numerous ways, shades of them appearing unexpectedly in others. And songs like "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" help us cope and, in turn, keep the memory alive. In the end, it doesn't matter the original intent of the song. True art transcends purpose and becomes something more---much, much more. Art has the ability to help us deal with life's curve balls. It can calm us and excite us. But, most of all, art makes us pause every now and then, especially when we are consumed with the minutiae of everyday living, to remind us about what is truly important.
In honor of what would have been my brother's 40th birthday, I created a video dedicated to his memory. Of course, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" is the soundtrack. It couldn't have been anything else.