News & Insights 29 January 2009

“He Ain’t Heavy” – The Story Behind Johannesburg

At the tail end of last year, I wrote a song called “Johannesburg”.

Typically, the songs I write are based on my own life experiences, but this one was an exception. There was a news story on the BBC, last September I think, in which a British correspondent interviewed two brothers – neither of them any older than 15 years old – arriving in Johannesburg after a harrowing journey on foot from Zimbabwe.

Their parents had been murdered by government militia. Left on their own at such a young age, at first they had no idea which way to turn, but soon they heard people talking about Johannesburg. Everybody was saying that if you could find a way to get there, you’d be offered food and shelter. The two boys had nothing – literally, nothing – except the faint glimmer of hope provided by a city they knew not one thing about and had no conceivable way of reaching. So they did the only thing they could – they started walking.

By the time they reached the outskirts of the city and the BBC correspondent interviewed them, they had been walking continuously for many days and had been mugged and beaten on the way. Finding nothing of value on them, the muggers had taken their shoes. Against all odds, however, they had made it – weak, starved and emotionally drained – to the city of Johannesburg. 

Even though this story was obviously a million miles away from anything I’ve ever experienced, and told of hardship I couldn’t hope to understand, something about it struck a chord with me. I guess it reminded me of the inspiration behind the Hollies’ song “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, which also happens to be one of my favourite songs of all time. Apparently “He Ain’t Heavy…” is based on a religious parable of sorts, in which a priest is walking along a dusty country road and sees two young man advancing towards him in the distance. As they get closer he realises that one man is badly injured and the other is carrying him on his back. Discovering that they have walked many miles in the intense heat without food, water or respite, the priest asks the carrier how he is able to withstand such a heavy burden. The man’s response became the title of that song.

Anyhow, I finished “Johannesburg” and we played it to a few people to test the water. We live with a guy who comes from Cape Town and, when he heard the track, he told us we had to find a way to get out to South Africa and make the song heard. So we did. 

And we leave today.

We’ll let you know how it goes!

Chris Lightyear

ps. you can get a free copy of “Johannesburg” by adding your e-mail address to the box on our homepage.

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