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I was listening to the song "Red Dirt Girl" by Emmylou Harris, and didn't understand one of the lyrics: "her mama leaned hard." What does this mean?

Her daddy turned mean and her mama leaned hard

Got in trouble with a boy from town

I did find one definition from this blog, but it doesn't seem to be what I am looking for: "To lean hard you must get under God’s feet and submit to His plans and purposes, even if you do not see them fully or understand them at all. Leaning means shifting all the weight of the burden from your shoulders to His."

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    I don’t know what it really means, but I don’t see why you’ve dismissed the definition you found.
    – Jim
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 15:50
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    From the context, I would say it means that her mama rebelled against her daddy when he got mean.
    – JonLarby
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 10:58
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    At a guess I'd say it was lean as in "put pressure on" as a parent might put pressure on a child, and while some pressure is positively motivating, too much causes more in stress than it gains in encouragement, which would match the "turned mean" from the other parent.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 11:09
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    It's not wholly obvious but it prolly means "When her daddy turned mean, he slapped her mama around" Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 20:28
  • Her mother left an indelible impression. Among many other possibilities… Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 20:25

3 Answers 3

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+500

MacMillan Dictionary:

2[lean on someone] INFORMAL to put pressure on someone in order to make them do something The Prime Minister’s been leaning pretty heavily on her to resign. Synonyms and related words

lean on someone, informal

The song has two separate ideas. The line does not suggest the father did something to the mother. It suggests the father was mean and the mother was strict and the girl got pregnant anyway. The mother "leaned hard" on her to not have sex with boys, but it didn't work. She got pregnant.

The lean hard on someone is the same as to lean heavily on someone.

It is a song about a poor family. "red dirt girl" suggests an unpaved country road where the girl lives. Country lanes are often just dirt roads and some are reddish or orange dirt.

Here is an excellent article about poverty in rural America published in The Guardian in which the author, a woman, states subjects of concern to rural communities very clearly, as it applies to her own situation.

"Even at a midwestern state university, my backgroundagricultural work, manual labor, rural poverty, teen pregnancies, domestic chaos, pervasive addiction – seemed like a faraway story to the people I met."

The article makes clear that teen pregnancy and poverty are typical subjects in poor, rural areas.

poverty in rural Kansas

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  • I'm not sure you have explained the apparently intransitive usage of "leaned hard". I just came across this other instance: "If you lean hard when you perceive frailty or something imperfect in your own self, you may be setting yourself up for health problems down the road." The meaning of this is quite obscure to me, and like in the song lyrics, this notion of "leaning hard" seems to be intransitive. It may be religious—"lean hard on Jesus"—which could imply that the mother became pious and distant. "Lean Hard" happens to also be the title of a prominent 19th Century sermon.
    – Theo H
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 22:20
  • @TheoH In the song, it is pretty clear they parents were leaning hard on her. There is no other meaning. Often, people just make stuff shorter.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 23:11
  • I know the song well, and I don't see any evidence for your interpretation at all!
    – Theo H
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 23:24
  • @TheoH Then, you tell me what it means. You say, for example, it may be religious: lean hard on Jesus. That is exactly the same as lean hard on anyone at all. In that sense, it means to rely on something a lot or to be looking for support from someone. My brother leaned hard on me during high school (gave me a hard time OR relied on me a lot). In the song, the mother giving the girl a hard time is more likely because the mother is surely not relying on her daughter.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 23:30
  • I don't know what "lean hard" means and it has always puzzled me. I've posted an answer which contains what I do know and what I now think it probably refers to.
    – Theo H
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 17:40
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Mom was leaning hard on alcohol to help her cope. She also turns to alcohol and pills in the story. Her mother could have also been leaning hard on her for psychological support since her husband was drinking heavily. Probably due to the loss of his son. Damn sad song. But beautiful

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I've always been puzzled by this lyric, but I've just found something that leads me to believe that to "lean hard" is an American colloquialism. I'm not sure exactly what it means, though!

The thing I found is this:

Low tolerance for physical imperfection is absorbed into your professional life as a pilot and relationships outside of the cockpit. If you lean hard when you perceive frailty or something imperfect in your own self, you may be setting yourself up for health problems down the road. Ease up a bit on yourself and others. It’s not worth the deleterious effects to health and personal as well as professional relationships.

https://disciplesofflight.com/pilot-personality-traits/

Here "lean hard" is used intransitively to refer to a response to adversity. Whatever this response is, it seems to the opposite of going easy on yourself, perhaps a bit like "stressing out". It has bad effects on personal relationships.

The original question's reference to religion seems to me like it is probably on the right track. "Lean hard!" is the title of a 19th C sermon, and the expression recurs in US religious contexts up to the present day. I'm not part of that culture and I really don't know what "leaning hard on the Lord" entails.

My tentative guess is that Harris is using it to refer to strict religiosity. The family is falling apart: the husband has become mean, and the wife's response is to turn to religion in a narrow way. Neither parent is emotionally attuned to their child.

Harris is a Catholic, and it seems plausible that in this lyric she intends to critize the narrow piety of "leaning hard".

In another song, "Cup of Kindness", she sings

And when Mother Mary finally comes to call

She could pass right thru your heart

And leave no trace at all

While you were reaching for the sacred and divine

She was standing right beside you all the time.

(via https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/januaryweb-only/stumbleintograce.html)

Couldn't that lyric be seen to be in the same spirit as the apparent criticism (in "Red Dirt Girl") of the mother's strict religiosity, and of emotional disconnection from others?

I am not sure about any of this, but it seems likely to me that this is a colloquial expression, rooted in religion, which Harris is using knowingly.

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  • You can lean hard on anyone at all. You keep talking about religion. Well, here's an example that does not say "on God" but the context makes it clear that God is telling the person to lean hard on Him, Her or Them. Title: Lean Hard Child of My love, lean hard, And let Me feel the pressure of thy care. In other words lean hard on Me, God. So, that's exactly the meaning of "lean on me to get support". susansbooksandgifts.com/grief/grief-pain-lean-hard-poem
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 17:46
  • Yeah, the point is that Americans seem to use just the two words "lean hard" specifically in a religious sense. I don't understand what it means exactly, but I think there is good reason to think that it is a colloquialism and, in this song, not a reference to the mother leaning on the daughter. Indeed, the mother could be neglectful of and emotionally distant from the daughter. The use of the expression "lean hard" in the aviation context is a great example of a similarly mystifying use of the words—at least, it's mystifying to me because I'm not from that part of the world.
    – Theo H
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 18:00
  • No, it is not religious per se. It means put your "weight" [spiritual or emotional] on someone for support. Lean on God, Lean on Jesus. You can lean on anyone and you needn't actually name the person if the context shows it. I guess if you are not English or American or Canadian or Australian etc, you might not get it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 19:19
  • No, it is not religious per se. It means put your "weight" [spiritual or emotional] on someone for support. Lean on God, Lean on Jesus. You can lean on anyone and you needn't actually name the person if the context shows it. I guess if you are not English or American or Canadian or Australian etc, you might not get it. It is a song and hard rhymes with yard in the previous line.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 19:30
  • I'm a native speaker! I am from Ireland. I think there is a mystery here. Consider the aviation-related quote I included. It's not (explicitly) religious but it is also a colloquialism that needs explaining.
    – Theo H
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 19:47

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