Lyricists often use the words ‘brother/s’ and ‘sister/s’ to metaphorically refer to members of one’s peer group, congregation, community, or to humanity (or rather, to the best part of humanity). Yet the fact that the most desirable aspects of being human is represented by our collective ideals about siblings contrasts with the common characterization of siblings as rivals. We present a curated list of songs that explore the simplicity and complexity, the affirmations and contradictions, the heartbreaks and joys, of our sibling relationships.
Being at War with Each Other – vocals by Barbra Streisand. Music and lyrics by Carole King.
If I Had A Hammer – vocals by Peter, Paul and Mary (1963). Music and lyrics by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.
Scandalize My Name – vocals by Paul Robeson. Music and lyrics – unknown. A Spiritual from the time of slavery in the USA. Read about some spirituals addressing moral trespasses within one’s community Here.
Go Rest High On That Mountain – vocals, music and lyrics by Vince Gill. Gill began writing a song at the untimely death of country music singer Keith Whitely. But it was after his older brother Bob Coen’s death in 1993, after nearly 30-year struggle from brain damage from an auto accident, that it became this musical eulogy for Bob. At his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2009, he said, “I wrote this song, and I didn’t have any idea if anybody would want to hear it, or like it. All I wanted to do was grieve for him and celebrate his life. That’s how I always process grief—sit down with a guitar and make something up. Turns out that if anybody remembers any of my songs, it’ll be this one.”
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – vocals by The Hollies. Music and lyrics by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell. 1969.
Less of Me – vocals by The Statler Brothers. Music by Glen Campbell and lyrics based on the poem, Creed, by Edgar A. Guest.
My Last Farewell – vocals by Derek McCormack with The Barleycorn. Music and lyrics by Sean and Frank O’Meara. [An Irish folksong based on Padraic Pearse’s last letter to his mother before being put to death for his leadership in the Easter Rising of 1916. It also recounts a message for his brother, Willie, which speaks to their relationship, and reflects the belief that Padraic did not know his brother was also sentenced to death. Read more about this sad story here.]
Once Were Brothers – vocals, music, and lyrics by Robbie Robertson (formerly with The Band).
Over You – sung here by Blake Shelton. Music and lyrics by Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert [expressing Shelton’s shock and heartache when, as a teen, his older brother was killed in a car accident].
You Are My Christmas – vocals by Dolly Parton, her brother Randy Parton, and his daughter Heidi (2020). Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton. [When Dolly was eleven, her brother was born around Christmas – this song was inspired by their loving relationship.]
Cruel Sister [a.k.a. The Twa Sisters] – vocals by The Pentangle (although numerous artists have performed a variation of this song). [This is a well-known, traditional murder ballad from the British Isles from the 17th century (if not earlier), with variations in title and lyric appearing throughout Europe. An extreme case of sibling rivalry, grace and sometimes revenge. Similarly, the folk tale, The Singing Bone, published by The Brothers Grimm, is about two brothers.]
Martha – vocals, music and lyrics by Rufus Wainwright. [A moving song written for Rufus’ younger sister to overcome differences at a time when their mother was very ill.]
Ms. Celie’s Song (Sister) – vocals by Táta Vega. Music by Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. Lyrics by Quincy Jones, Rod Temperton and Lionel Richie. From the film, A Color Purple.
My Sister – vocals by Reba McEntire. Music and Lyrics by Amy Michelle Dalley, Bonnie J. Baker, and Roxie Dean.
Oh, Sister – vocals by Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. Music by Bob Dylan and lyrics by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy. [By most accounts, this song is metaphorical. Yet it references an idealized relationship between brother and sister.]
Older Sister – vocals, music and lyrics by Carly Simon.
Sisters – vocals by Rosemary Clooney and Trudy Stevens. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, for the 1954 film, White Christmas.
Two Little Sisters – vocals by Carly Simon and Meryl Streep. Music and lyrics by Carly Simon. Theme song from the film, Marvin’s Room. 1997.
When We Grow Up – vocals by Diana Ross. Music by Stephen Lawrence and lyrics by Shelley Miller.