On Harry Chapin

When trying to explain to a friend of mine who Harry Chapin was, I used this analogy – Harry Chapin is to my mom as Jeff Tweedy is to me. I’m a devoted fan of Wilco, the band for which Tweedy is frontman, a band whose fan base is fiercely loyal despite their lack of mainstream success. Wilco is by no means aching for more listeners, but they’re also not a group that everybody knows. And the same goes for Harry Chapin – though much beloved by fans in his heyday, Harry Chapin was not a household name except among my family.

Most people don’t know who Harry Chapin is when I mention his name in passing, so I use this analogy often. Citing Chapin’s most famous song “Cat’s Cradle” usually provides a frame of reference as well, and some music fans even remember “Taxi,” the epitome of Harry Chapin’s trademark story songs (a song so famed among Chapin fans that it has it’s own sequel entitled, appropriately enough, “Sequel”). But few people know more than the late artist’s name and a song or two.

Lucky for me, I grew up the child of two devoted Harry Chapin fans. We’d listen to Harry Chapin’s two-disc Gold Medal Collection cassette tapes while driving around in my father’s old maroon station wagon, and I never found it the least bit odd to do so. I thought everyone knew and loved Mr. Chapin, that his songs were common cultural knowledge among people my parent’s age and their kin. When I realized that Harry Chapin wasn’t a household name, that he wasn’t considered one of music’s classic performers, I was more than a little disappointed. It’s hard to separate my love for Harry Chapin from that of my parents – is his music intrinsically good or do I feel a fierce loyalty to the Chapin catalogue because it’s what I grew up listening to? Hard for me to say, though my husband would probably argue for the latter. When the real world’s idea of Harry Chapin finally hit me, it hurt.

But, after all, this blog is named after one of Chapin’s songs (one of the perks of enjoying little-known 70’s folk artists: the url’s referencing their music haven’t been snatched up yet). And he had more integrity and demonstrated more sincere generosity than nearly any other musical artist I’ve ever come across. While I’ll allow the critics, my husband, and Chapin fans to battle over the merits of his musical career, I thought it was due time to share Harry Chapin’s story since it contributed more than a little to the shaping of this blog.

My mother always told me that Harry Chapin did more to address world hunger than anyone else. While this point may be up for debate, he definitely charts somewhere in the top ten. He was a cofounder of World Hunger Year, an organization devoted to addressing the causes of hunger and poverty. Nearly a third of the profits from Chapin’s concerts were routed to social causes and he lived a remarkably modest lifestyle because of the generosity with which he spread his money to others in greater need. Though he died at the young age of 38, Harry was recognized for his philanthropy posthumously with a Congressional Gold Medal. And his work even inspired others – Harry’s manager initiated multiple anti-hunger programs following Chapin’s death in an effort to continue the cause that the artist had worked so tirelessly to address.

Apart from his charity work, Chapin was a prolific musicians whose songs were infamously narrative in style. I grew up listening to “I Wanna Learn A Love Song,” the story of a guitar teacher who falls in love with one of his married students. Come to find out upon reading Chapin’s controversially-released biography, the premise for the song was entirely true – and the object of Harry’s affection ended up becoming his wife Sandy. There’s also “Taxi,” the story of a cab driver who picks up a glamorous woman on a rainy San Francisco night, only to discover that the passenger is an old flame. “Tangled Up Puppet” gives voice to a father’s struggles with his daughter growing up (yes, this was the song playing during the father-daughter dance at my wedding – and I thought quite appropriately so). One of my favorites, “Story of a Life,” plays like the final minutes before we die when our whole lives are said to pass before our lives. Harry supposedly composed this one on a plane about to crash – luckily, the pilot regained control or the crash was not fatal, I don’t remember which. It harps on the centrality of Harry’s wife in the arc of his life, a sentiment that I’d argue is beautifully shared.

And finally, there’s this blog’s namesake “Remember When The Music.” An ode to idealism and musical inspiration, the song’s lyrics read like a true folk ballad. Since this song explores the role that music can play in our lives, the change that great art can inspire, and the beauty of inspiration itself. The title seemed a fitting one for this blog as well – a space where I hoped to explore issues of social justice and change, but also to relish and celebrate art in its many forms. “Remember When The Music” reflects the very inspirations that stirred me to create this blog. Borrowing the title seemed the perfect means to pay respects to an often overlooked artist/activist, while defining my writing as a continuation of what Chapin worked so hard to do.

Sadly, it’s difficult to find Harry Chapin’s songs and performances on YouTube. But I’ve done my best to offer a small mix of his music below.

 

 

 

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