He Ain’t Heavy. He’s My Brother.

Apparently the Neil performed in Rochester tonight. This I learned from my Twitter.

Neil Diamond was among the small list of artists who captured my ear as a young sprout and, indeed, who is among those responsible for my endearing love, nay, obsession, with music. With songs like “Childsong” and “I Am the Lion,” how could the album Tap Root Manuscript not have filled my young head with earworms?

So here is the story I sat down to write. Among the songs on this fine album is Diamond’s cover of “He Ain’t Heavy; He’s My Brother.”

The song reportedly originated from parable:

In 1884, James Wells, Moderator of the United Free Church of Scotland, in his book The Parables of Jesus tells the story of a little girl carrying a big baby boy. Seeing her struggling, someone asked if she wasn’t tired. With surprise she replied, “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.”[3]

In a 1918 publication by Ralph Waldo Trine titled The Higher Powers of Mind and Spirit, he relates the following anecdote: “Do you know that incident in connection with the little Scottish girl? She was trudging along, carrying as best she could a boy younger, but it seemed almost as big as she herself, when one remarked to her how heavy he must be for her to carry, when instantly came the reply: ‘He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither.'”[4]

The first editor of Kiwanis magazine, Roe Fulkerson, published a column in September 1924 carrying the title “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, the first use of the phrase exactly as it is rendered in the song title.

In the 1940s, the words, adapted as “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother”, were taken as a slogan for Boys Town children’s home by founder Father Edward Flanagan.[5]

When I was a child and I would listen to the song—and, bear in mind, I only became a sibling when I was 27 years old, my life previous was as an only— and I would think, that’s weird. Why would one man carry another grown man upon his back?

I never imagined it was about an older sibling carrying an infant or a toddler.

I didn’t have the context.

Childrens’ imaginations are wonderful and I wish we never had to shut them down.

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