Healing Hands Words & music by Rex Benson & Steve Gillette
Our first lessons of how to behave in the world come from our family. We benefit from the influence of people who have experienced the world and know something about how it works. Those lucky enough to have extended family members in our lives are even more fortunate.
In Homer's "Odyssey" Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, is questioned by Athena about Odysseus, and he replies cryptically, "It's a wise child who knows his own father." William Shakespeare used the line in Act 2, Scene 2 of "The Merchant of Venice." Both authors clearly thought it was a significant observation. Besides the implication that the legitimacy of one's birth is important, there are other reasons to value that inheritance, and that applies to knowing one's grandparents as well.
Wisdom and compassion and just generally good habits toward others are qualities that families instill. Healing is just an extension of that good will combined with some knowledge of the healing arts. Family remedies may come to mind, but I'm mostly thinking of empathy and the willingness to take on someone else's pain.
In his book "The Transparent Self," Sidney Jourard wrote that the therapist will make better progress in his treatment of a patient if he is willing to 'know and be known by' the patient. That is, being able to empathize and participate in true intimacy. He said, "A healthy person knows their true self. They know how to behave in an authentic and appropriate way with others. They know how to behave responsibly and encourage others to be their true selves. They are therefore more able to make true connections with other people."
The March 31, 2020 edition of the New York Times reported that: "The coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 30,000 people in New York City, is beginning to take a toll on those who are most needed to combat it: the doctors, nurses and other workers at hospitals and clinics. In emergency rooms and intensive care units, typically dispassionate medical professionals are feeling panicked as increasing numbers of colleagues get sick."
Many of us have loved ones in the midst of this calamity in one role or another. In terms of this song, and songs which are meant to celebrate the best of human compassion and care, we struggle to find our way, to center on 'right action' and forbearance. Sometimes the best thing a songwriter can do is to raise a song which can resonate and reassure and if possible give direction. Recalling previous generations who came through difficult times without necessarily mentioning the specifics does seem to allow the song to resonate with people of a wider range of experience and world view.
William James said of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, "Surely the cutting edge of all our usual misfortunes comes from their character of loneliness." That is, if I lose my home, I'm cast out among those who remain comfortable, but if we all lose our homes in the earthquake, we're in this together. One of my favorite sentences from a 1906 survivor is this: "Then when the dynamite explosions were making the night noisy and keeping everybody awake and anxious, the girls or some of the refugees would start playing the piano, and Billy Delaney and other folks would start singing; so that the place became quite homey and sociable, considering it was on the sidewalk, outside the high school, and the town all around it was on fire." - Rebecca Solnit, "When the Hero is the Problem"
In our song, I believe Rex and I were making the assumption that we could start with the child's memory of and love for the grandparents and move toward a general statement about how to be in the world. 'To lend a hand in this troubled world,' is the way we settled on putting it in the chorus. And of course to use the language of hands, fingers, touch, etc.
Repetition can be very powerful, but it works better if it's supported by an idea that can bear repeating. It's good if a new dimension of the central idea is there for the listener with each repetition of the title line. We try to avoid simply insinuating the central thought without giving some context. That's why following each use of the two words, 'healing hands' in the chorus, we have a phrase that ties to a different aspect of the idea.
On the third iteration, we vary the formula with 'I'll always be drawn to,' making the listener wait for the completion of the thought. I believe this strengthens the sense of conclusion with 'drawn to hearts that belong to healing hands.' It remains for the reader to decide how effective and successful our choices were, but the important thing here is that you can see what we were after and learn from our effort.
When Don Williams agreed to record it, he provided another element to the song that it needed. His rich, warm and fatherly voice says more than we could ever hope for in achieving our wishes for the song. I hope you will agree. This is a rare live video of Don and his band performing "Healing Hands":
Don Williams and his band in a live video performance of "Healing Hands"
The version that Jim Rooney produced is on Steve's album "The Ways of the World," available on CD or MP3 album here.
The songbook with the sheet music for "Healing Hands" and 46 other songs is available here.
Here are the lyrics as we sing it:
My grandma and grandpa had wonderful hands With callouses and wedding bands. They taught me where there was love There was always a way. The picture of the two of them Has seen me through a lot of years. They were there when I looked up to them And they're in my life today. Healing hands, something I can hold on to. Healing hands, the touch that understands. Healing hands, I'll always be drawn to Hearts that belong to healing hands. You and I may worry so To see the kingdoms come and go But we've seen enough to know It's only love that lingers And learning how to live can take a lifetime We've got to lend a hand in this troubled world Before it slips right through our fingers. Healing hands, something I can hold on to. Healing hands, the touch that understands. Healing hands, I'll always be drawn to Hearts that belong to healing hands.
© 1990 Foreshadow Music, BMI / Rex Benson Music, BMI