Withers' maternal grandfather, Grackus Monroe Galloway, had been born into slavery. As a boy Withers would attend church with his grandmother, Lula, where she would sing and clap along with the hymns. He later said: "It was spontaneous singing, there was nothing programmed. People got up and sang and everybody would join in. It was my favourite kind of singing."
A central theme of the song is the protective and nurturing force of the hands, as expressed in the last verse:
The song has since been covered by many other artists, including Keb' Mo', Al Jarreau, Kristy Lee, Meg Mac, Merry Clayton, Livingston Taylor, The Staple Singers, Gladys Knight, Tony Orlando, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Porter, Will Downing, Take 6, Josh Garrels, Marti Pellow, Starsailor, Gil Scott-Heron, Everlast, Jeff Lorber, Paddy Casey in Today FM's Even Better Than The Real Thing and Ron Kenoly. It is also sampled for the hook of Blackstreet's "No Diggity" and "Shout" by Shout for England.