Monday, March 21, 2011

"He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother": The Story of a Song

We all have those songs which touch us in certain ways. Music has that ability---to stir emotions, to wrangle memories. We have the tendency to claim songs as our own for what they do within us. For me, no song is more poignant and powerful than “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”

The song was written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell, their only collaboration as songwriters. Russell was dying of cancer at the time and his lyrics for this song would be the last he ever wrote. The origin of the phrase is unknown, but it did appear as the title of an article in Kiwanis magazine in 1924 and then later became the motto for Father Flanagan’s Boy’s Town in the 1940s.

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 first heard “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” sometime in 1975 or so. My parents had recently bought Olivia Newton-John’s release, Clearly Love. I can still picture the album cover: Olivia standing in a denim jacket, a slight smile on her face as wind blows through her feathered hair. Olivia Newton-John may have been my first crush. The song is the final song on the album and it would be the first song in my life to become emotionally significant.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Dear Bruce,

    My name's Rosângela, I'm Brazilian. I was looking for the origin of "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" when I came across your blog and read about your little brother's story... it's really very sad and I can understand your feelings and why this song means so much to you.
    My aim was to look for a beautiful song to give to my students but today this song touched me so deeply.When i was a child, this song was simply nice to hear but now things are so different!
    First because I can understand the meaning of the song and second because I have a disabled son. Today a guy asked me if I don't think about his future...I answered it is a concern of every mother...
    Sometimes I have to confess I feel tired but he is the most important and beautiful thing that happened in my life and I know I am blessed to have him.The strenght I need I'm certain that guide will provide as He has been doing so far.
    But it's good to share some experience with somebody who has passed thru hard moments, too.

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  2. Dear Rosângela--

    Thanks for your kind words. Isn't it amazing how no matter where we are in the world, we can be touched by music and common experiences--a common humanity. I think your son is lucky to have you as his mother. And when you feel down, find comfort in the fact that you go through your life, dedicated to him and do your best to make his life better. That's all than any of us can do...it is the reason why we are here, I think. I wish you the best.

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  3. Found this post by coincidence...
    Really loved the way you wrote it, and it certainly created very real images in my mind ...and it also made me realise how much we, as humans, have in common.
    That hurt, it never goes away. We can not change it, therefore we just live on.....

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  4. I identify with this song too. When my little brother was 13 and I was 27 he was very ill and he was leaning on me to walk as we went into the emergency room, my arms around him to hold him up. My Mom said, "Barbara, he's too heavy for you to be carrying him". I thought to myself, "He ain't heavy, he's my brother." I also never understood why she said that. He certainly couldn't walk by himself. He is fine now and 56 and I just told him the story. Always loved the song.

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  5. hello bruce, there are no words. I reflect and remember also this song as I was a marine vietnam vet. thanks! god bless. classics live forever.

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  6. Bruce.. just a "thank you" for your article about essence behind Neil Diamond's song.

    I love music, all kinds, from Hayden, through Beethoven, Wagner, Al Jolson, and yes, Neil Diamond, his contemporaries, Garth Brooks and his contemporaries (the good ones lol)... I don't listen to most of the noisy, simplistic popular stuff today.

    You might of noticed that serious musicians will say I only mention "war horses," and perhaps I do. No apologies from me, though.

    This is not a complaint in any way shape or form of the mystery (for me) of the story behind this music... Human beings do not clone, and what Diamond's presentation does is go so far beyond literal meaning that it affects, I think, all who listen to him.

    You are more concise than I'm being, and are, in my book, a born again teacher. (I am a teacher too, and I recognize the good ones I wish I could be like.)

    Thanks Bruce.

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  7. My boyfriend loves this song. When he was 5 years old his brother stopped talking. They had no idea what had happened to him. He was soon diagnosed with Autism. He would have the capabilities of a 3 year old for the rest of his life. Today he is 19 years old. He still can't speak, can't take care of himself and can't think for himself. He will never have a relationship or enjoy the many things life has to offer. But he loves him and no matter what we will always be there for him and care for him until the day he passes away. He ain't heavy, he's my brother. We love you Tyler :)

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  8. I heard this song long ago when I was just a kid. I am 4 years older than my brother. He is almost 46 and I am 50. I have a brother who was diagnosed with Renal Cell Carcinoma in December of 2015. He has a very long 8 hour operation the first week of the New Year in 2016. He came through the operation very well which is not very usual. He lost a kidney that was covered with a mass, they took the cancerous spots of his liver, he had a cancerous spot on the artery that takes the blood flow back to the heart, and they took the cancerous spots off his liver. He went back to work this past May. We talk every week, I took him to IHOP one evening back in May. He's loved their pancakes since he was a kid. Our dad passed away in 1983, I was 17 and he was 10 going on 11. So it was our mom raising us after our dad died. She did the best that she could, however a boy needs his father so very much. He got into trouble in his teens and during his early adulthood. He said to me not too long ago " Maybe if daddy hadn't died, I wouldn't have gone down the wrong road, you left me", he said. I got married in 1988 and moved to Quantico, Va. My husband was in the Marines. "You don't know what it was like living with mommy". Sure I do, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to leave. She's old now with the onset of dementia, so her negative characteristics are magnified. Her words are razor sharp and still cut like a knife. I try not to get angry at her and tell myself that it's a disease, just like the alchoholism that killed my father in the end. I don't what brought this song to mind just three or four days ago, but I downloaded it and added it to my playlist. I took him for a biopsy back in June, he's never been in the hospital ever, only when he was born. He didn't realize it's a same day type surgery. His appointment was at nine, that's the time they tell everybody to come, so he wasn't seen right away. He cried like he was 5, he said to me " I want to go home". I talked to him and tried to comfort him. He stayed for the procedure and then I took him home. It's itonic yo find out that one of the writers of this song was dying from cancer and that it was the last song that he wrote. My brother is doing ok, he's working and able to take care of himself. They gave him 5 years to live, so maybe he will live until he is 50. The doctors said with his kick a** attitude he may live for 15 years. The disease spread to his lungs and there's no way to treat that except for chemo and my brother said, "I'm not doing that, it's going to make me feel like crap". For now, he's holding his own, but I know that at some point I may have to help take care of him. I will without a doubt because "He ain't heavy, he's my brother". I always thought this song was about the Vietnam war and always pictured soldiers carrying the injured on their backs waiting for the medical planes coming to help them. It's so ironic that it was written by someone who was dying, just like my brother will be at some point.

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  9. I heard this song long ago when I was just a kid. I am 4 years older than my brother. He is almost 46 and I am 50. I have a brother who was diagnosed with Renal Cell Carcinoma in December of 2015. He has a very long 8 hour operation the first week of the New Year in 2016. He came through the operation very well which is not very usual. He lost a kidney that was covered with a mass, they took the cancerous spots of his liver, he had a cancerous spot on the artery that takes the blood flow back to the heart, and they took the cancerous spots off his liver. He went back to work this past May. We talk every week, I took him to IHOP one evening back in May. He's loved their pancakes since he was a kid. Our dad passed away in 1983, I was 17 and he was 10 going on 11. So it was our mom raising us after our dad died. She did the best that she could, however a boy needs his father so very much. He got into trouble in his teens and during his early adulthood. He said to me not too long ago " Maybe if daddy hadn't died, I wouldn't have gone down the wrong road, you left me", he said. I got married in 1988 and moved to Quantico, Va. My husband was in the Marines. "You don't know what it was like living with mommy". Sure I do, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to leave. She's old now with the onset of dementia, so her negative characteristics are magnified. Her words are razor sharp and still cut like a knife. I try not to get angry at her and tell myself that it's a disease, just like the alchoholism that killed my father in the end. I don't what brought this song to mind just three or four days ago, but I downloaded it and added it to my playlist. I took him for a biopsy back in June, he's never been in the hospital ever, only when he was born. He didn't realize it's a same day type surgery. His appointment was at nine, that's the time they tell everybody to come, so he wasn't seen right away. He cried like he was 5, he said to me " I want to go home". I talked to him and tried to comfort him. He stayed for the procedure and then I took him home. It's itonic yo find out that one of the writers of this song was dying from cancer and that it was the last song that he wrote. My brother is doing ok, he's working and able to take care of himself. They gave him 5 years to live, so maybe he will live until he is 50. The doctors said with his kick a** attitude he may live for 15 years. The disease spread to his lungs and there's no way to treat that except for chemo and my brother said, "I'm not doing that, it's going to make me feel like crap". For now, he's holding his own, but I know that at some point I may have to help take care of him. I will without a doubt because "He ain't heavy, he's my brother". I always thought this song was about the Vietnam war and always pictured soldiers carrying the injured on their backs waiting for the medical planes coming to help them. It's so ironic that it was written by someone who was dying, just like my brother will be at some point.

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  10. Oh my gosh....I wasn't expecting to cry over this video and story but I did....crazy how today I stumbled on your blog and it's March 2nd 2017....My heart goes out to you, what a tragedy you and your family went through...can't even imagine...*Hugs to you*

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  11. Thanks for clarifying where the lyrics came from. So sorry that you are all hurting over the loss of someone close. I lost my father to cancer in 2001. They say time heals all wounds but I find listening to songs like this brings it all back.

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