Where Did ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ Come From?

During World War II (1945), a Japanese boy stood in front of a funeral pyre and waited his turn to cremate his little dead brother.

The person who took the photograph said, in an interview, that the boy was biting his lips so hard to keep from crying that blood was dripping from the corner of his mouth.

It was then that the guard asked him for the body and said, “Give me the load you are carrying on your back.” And the boy answered:

“He ain’t heavy, he is my brother”. He handed over the body, turned around, and left…

In Japan, even today, this image is used as a symbol of strength.

In college during the mid 1970s, I had the opportunity to meet and interview some music entertainers of the times. As the Fine Arts Editor for the Southwest Texas State (now Texas State) University Star, it helped me go backstage for artists like Freddy Mercury and Queen, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Alvin Lee with Ten Years After, and more.

One of my classmates was a young fellow who would sit out in the hall before a business class trying to catch up because he had been out singing late into the night before. You may have heard of him–George Strait.

A special moment was meeting Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina backstage before their San Antonio Municipal Auditorium (now the expanded Tobin Center) concert. I secured autographs, asked a few questions and was allowed to watch their sound check.

From the side of the stage they sat on stools, side-by-side, singing to an empty auditorium that would soon be filled to the brim.

The song was “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” I had heard the recordings by The Hollies and Neil Diamond, but this one time “personal” performance remains in my heart and memories to this day.

It was written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. They only met three times to collaborate before Russell died of lymphoma.

A guy name Reginald played piano on The Hollies’ version which was released in 1970. It was a worldwide hit. You likely know the piano player by another name–Elton John.

The title actually didn’t come from the Japanese picture shown above. It came from the motto for Boys Town, a community formed in 1917 by a Catholic priest named Father Edward Flanagan.

Located in Omaha, Nebraska, it was a place where troubled or homeless boys could come for help. In 1941, Father Flanagan was looking at a magazine called The Messenger when he came across a drawing of a boy carrying a younger boy on his back, with the caption, “He ain’t heavy Mr., he’s my brother.”

Today, there is a statue with that phrase that serves as the symbol for Boys Town.

In 1938, actor Spencer Tracey portrayed Father Flanagan in the movie Boys Town, which also starred Mickey Rooney. In 1941, they made a sequel called Men Of Boys Town, where they used the phrase “He ain’t heavy, Father, he’s my brother” for the first time in a movie.

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