Lyricists often use the words ‘brother/s’ and ‘sister/s’ to metaphorically refer 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.
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – vocals by The Hollies. Music and lyrics by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell.
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.
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.]
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.
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.