I recall being in English class in 7th grade learning about poetry, when I was introduced to an artist I would learn to appreciate several years later. My teacher had us read a poem that seemed kind of bland and confusing to a middle school me. It was something about a father who was never around as much as he would have liked, and it used some allusions to children’s stories. He then played us a song which was the poem put to music, and it really transformed the meaning of the song and how I felt about it. That song was “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.
I always remembered that song, I really liked how it told a powerful story in such a simple, colorful manner. Recently, I’ve started to listen into more of Chapin’s works, and learn more about him, and what I found astounded me. He was not only a songwriter and musician, he was also a philanthropist whose fight against world hunger set the stage for world-famous charity work.
Harry Chapin was born in Brooklyn in 1942, and like many other famous musicians was introduced to music at an early age. After an unsuccessful stint in a band with his brothers and a short career in filmmaking, Harry began writing and playing his own music. He was catapulted to fame with his song “Taxi”, and his most famous song “Cats in the Cradle” reached #1 on the charts in 1974. He used his fame to promote causes like world hunger, raising over $6 million dollars over his career and leaving behind a huge legacy of giving. His life was cut short in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway in 1981.
Although his voice was nothing special, his ability to craft meaningful stories was unmatched, and he built up a very loyal following. Chapin had a very distinct song style, the common denominator in all his songs being himself leading on guitar, with his band providing a backing of a bass guitar and usually a cello. Despite all the similarities his songs share, each and everyone one of his songs are distinct in their own way. More than a songwriter, Chapin was a storyteller.
His first hit “Taxi” is the story of a cab driver bumping into an old girlfriend, who had gone off to become an actress while he went off to learn to fly. He finds that they both got what they wanted; she is acting happy in her life with a rich husband, and that he is flying in his taxi, getting high. Chapin wrote that song when he found out that an old girlfriend of his had married rich while he was waiting to get a taxi license. He also later wrote a follow-up song to Taxi, called “Sequel”, where we find how both of them ended up happy.
“Cats in the Cradle” was a poem his wife had written for him, to subtly let him know that he shouldn’t let his incredibly busy touring schedule get between him and his kids. Chapin said that the song “scared the crap out of him” because it was about a father he didn’t want to become. His touring schedule was insane (He performed over 2000 concerts, many free, over his 20-year career), yet he always made sure he spent time at home with his family.
Many of his songs are sad, like “Mr. Tanner”, about a man whose dreams of singing are dashed by harsh critics. Chapin struggled with scathing reviews throughout his career, with Rolling Stone creating a “Harry Chapin Worst Single Of the Year Award”, and Harry regarded himself as a “Third-rate rockstar”.
He somehow manages to turn a one-night stand into a moving love story in what is my personal favorite song by Chapin, “A Better Place To Be”. His song “Sniper” is about the 1966 University of Texas shooting, giving the perspective of the shooter who is on a deranged quest for self actualization and the stunned world around him. “W*O*L*D*” is a runaway father writing to his wife about his new career as a disk jockey, which ends up revealing that he is unhappy and wishes she would take him back.
I’m not doing these songs liberty by merely describing them to you, to really enjoy Harry Chapin you have to listen to his music and hear him tell his stories.
Harry Chapin was more than a music man, he became very involved in philanthropy, often giving concerts to anyone who could raise money for causes he supported, and he personally donated huge sums of money to local charities. He was so committed to charity that he once almost mortgaged his house to prop up a local theatre group. Chapin’s philanthropy can be traced to his childhood, he came from humble beginnings, born to a family described as “long on achievement but short on money”. His wife Sandy, said “Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people,’ so he gave it away”.
Tragically his life was ended in 1981, while he was driving to a meeting. His car rapidly lost speed on the Long Island Expressway and he was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer. It is believed that he suffered a heart attack behind the wheel, an effect of the incredibly strenuous schedule he put himself on. That night he was supposed to perform at a concert, which was in usual Chapin style, for free. On his headstone reads the lyrics to his song “I Wonder What Would Happen To This World”
“If a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died, what one man’s life could be worth, well I wonder what would happen to this world?”
After his death, his philanthropic work not only lived on, it grew. The Harry Chapin Foundation was founded to continue his legacy of supporting community education and arts education programs. Harry famously went to Washington DC to push for legislation to fight hunger, and posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal for his work. His manager Ken Kragen, along with Harry Belafonte, were the force behind USA for Africa, and its famous single We Are The World. The project ended up raising over $63 million dollars for humanitarian causes. When Belafonte received an American Music Award for his work, he used his speech to remind people of how Chapin inspired him, saying “He threw a pebble into a pond, and I saw the ripples”.
I wrote this because as I was listening to Harry Chapin and learning about him, I found a petition to induct him into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. If there is anyone deserving of that honor, it is Chapin. He came from humble beginnings, and dedicated his life to helping others. His songwriting talent was unparalleled as he told stories, and often his art imitated his own life.
“Our lives are to be used and thus to be lived as fully as possible, and truly it seems that we are never so alive as when we concern ourselves with other people.” – Harry Chapin