A few years before he passed away, tireless activist Harry Chapin co-founded (with his wife Sandy and friend Bill Ayres) an organization called World Hunger Year (renamed WhyHunger in 2009), an outgrowth of his work as chair of the President’s Commission on World Hunger under President Jimmy Carter in 1975. In the almost six years that followed, Chapin raised millions to fight hunger and malnutrition, and attempted to enlist many other celebrities to join his efforts. After a car accident took his life, a number of performers, inspired by his example and recognizing his absence, took it upon themselves to create such campaigns and organizations as BandAid, LiveAid, USA for Africa and Hands Across America, while WhyHunger gradually became something of a nexus for hunger issues.
Singer-songwriter Tom Chapin is the spokesperson for this year’s campaign by WhyHunger, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending world hunger and poverty, which he is promoting by means of a video campaign called “Do Something.” The title, he explains, comes from a saying by his brother, the late Harry Chapin, founder of WhyHunger. “Harry’s motto was ‘when in doubt, do something,'” Chapin recalled.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Harry’s death on July 16, 1981, Chapin posted this video on his website, TomChapin.com, asking Harry Chapin fans, the music community and friends of WhyHunger to create short YouTube videos with their pledge to ‘do something’ to make the world a better place. Viewers are asked to upload their video to the WhyHunger YouTube account by visiting their page and sending a message with their video attached. The campaign will run until July 18th 2011. Submitted videos will be added to the Harry Chapin Tribute playlist. I spoke with Tom Chapin by telephone and he graciously answered questions in a meandering conversation that spanned his career, from his pioneering educational TV program “Make a Wish” in 1971 to his reflections on being a grandparent, all of it linked by a commitment to making the world a better place and encouraging children (his own and yours) to take up the same mission.
The “Do Something” video campaign, Chapin explained, began as a letter to WhyHunger Supporters, which then grew into an online effort. “It was an idea from one of the staffers at WhyHunger; they decided it was my turn to write the fundraising letter this year,” he said. Chapin worked with a WhyHunger staffer to create the letter based on “the credo Harry lived by, ‘when in doubt, do something,'” and then “somebody had the bright idea of using new media, of using the website as a place people could send in stuff that they were doing,” and the letter to supporters became a YouTube video.
Chapin spoke of what he calls the Food Movement, likening it to other social movements, saying “I lived through it, so have you, the women’s movement, the civil rights revolution, ecology, and I think we’re at the beginning, maybe even further along, of the Food movement; a movement about really discovering and paying attention to and trying to affect our food systems, and beginning to understand the demands of the gigantic corporate food system.” He went on to explain that over the years, WhyHunger has become a focal point or nexus for many of the food organizations such as charities, food banks, community gardens and so on. “Because of that, we know about a lot of these solutions and a lot of people doing amazing things. That was the genesis of [the “Do Something” campaign], and they decided to use me as a talking head, being a Chapin and having a little bit of a name, to challenge and talk about getting involved,” he explained, encouraging, “if you do something locally in your own group, make a little video and send it in.”
Having begun his professional career in the 1960s as one of The Chapin Brothers, Tom has witnessed major changes in technology, both in the recording process and in how artists manage their careers and interact with fans, changes that also impact charitable organizations like WhyHunger. “The music industry has been totally transformed,” Chapin says. “When I started, if you wanted to record, it was on 2″ tape, 24 tracks, and it cost $225 for a roll of tape that weighed 50 pounds, and you needed 15 of those for an album. And you needed a machine that cost thirty or forty thousand dollars; to outfit a studio cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet there were lots of studios all through New York. In my recording lifetime, which has been almost 50 years now, I’ve watched those studios die, and the technology get so that some kid with Garageband can actually make a pretty good tape. For around a thousand dollars, or even less than that, you get the technology to make really good digital recordings. That has had immense ramifications in terms of what’s going on.” He went on to explain that the changes in technology have led to a change of priorities, saying, “when I was starting out, it was always about trying to get the best recording possible; now it’s about trying to get the smallest recording possible. MP3s are really pretty sonically lousy. They’re worse than a 33-1/3 vinyl recording. But what they do have is access; with your iPod or your tiny little thing and earphones, you can take music anywhere.”
Aside from changes in recording, the technological changes in distribution have also had a major effect on recording artists. “The other side of that has been the whole internet and the demise of the record industry; when I started, the big thing you had to do was find a record company. You couldn’t do it yourself; you had to be with a record company. And now, anybody can do it. The downside is, there’s a lot of possibilities but there’s no path, there’s no prescribed path. My daughters, the Chapin Sisters, for as well as they sing, and write, and their history, if this were 30 years ago, they would have a big record contract, and there would be a company who would be working hard to make them happen. But now it’s really got to be them, doing it themselves.”
WhyHunger is actively pursuing the new social media in order to remain successful and better reach the public ear, but there are challenges, Chapin states, saying “you have to have people that are savvy about it; Bill Ayres and I are the old guard. We’re happy to have new things, but it’s a different world. I’m on Facebook, but Twitter, I have no idea, but WhyHunger, they’re very aware that there’s Facebook and Twitter, and of course email, and they use those.”
When asked about how social media has made fans more active and involved, or the interactions more personal, Chapin responded, “I don’t see that, necessarily; since the onset of email, and my website, we’ve had a pretty good dialog with fans; I don’t see much of a change with Facebook, but with email and my website it certainly changed. On my website, we have a request line, for instance, so if you’re going to one of my concerts, you can go and say “please play ‘Family Tree’ and ‘Pretty Planet’ and ‘Good Garbage,'” you know, and that’s been a really nice connection. The Facebook thing, we get a lot of people who write in and comment, but we haven’t used it in a large way, and that’s my fault, because I don’t know how to do that exactly.”
One aspect of social media that he is excited about it the ability of fans to directly support the work of their favorite performers through funding sites such as Kickstarter and Artistshare. “Artistshare started out working with jazz musicians at first, the idea is you get the fans to help finance your work and in turn you’re giving them access; you put up videos about the process and it allows them to have closer access to the artist. It’s a very interesting idea. The person I know who does it really well is a woman named Maria Schneider; she’s a jazz composer, she composes for jazz orchestras, and that’s a high-end thing to do. She’s won several Grammys, she’s very well respected, a remarkable musician, and she’s used this very well. When she wants to commission a new piece, she goes to the fans, and people either buy the CD beforehand, or if they want their name on it, they invest more; it’ll say ‘this piece was financed by Joe Schmoe.’ Every month she makes a video of herself talking about the piece, ‘this is how much I’ve got so far, I’ve got this idea,” and so on.” According to Chapin, Artistshare is beginning development of a sister project devoted to children’s entertainment, called Kidshare, and he will be working with them in the fall.
In 2008, Chapin had a viral hit with his song “Not on the Test,” a song and video extremely critical of the No Child Left Behind mandate and the emphasis on standardized testing and rote memorization at the expense of deeper thought and the Humanities. The song, with lyrics such as “don’t think about thinking, it’s not on the test,” was eagerly embraced by educators. Chapin explained how the video came to be online; “I’m on the board of NARAS, the Grammy people; I’m on their Advocacy committee, and I kind of pushed them into saying there ought to be music in the schools. New York City public schools don’t mandate music, or arts of any kind, really. There’s music in the schools, but it’s all for high school and college kids who are serious musicians.” Chapin had written the song for NPR’s “Morning Edition” with friend and writing partner John Forster, and he sang it acapella in the meeting. “This guy, Paul Katz, who has this wonderful organization called Commit Media, said we should do a video of this. With his help, we did the video and the website, and the response has been astonishing, really.” He said he has received many notes from teachers writing to express their thanks for saying what they had been thinking, and he has received many invitations to speak to various organizations. “That was daunting at first, and then I realized they’re not hiring me to tell them something that some expert would know; they’re hiring me because I’m Tom Chapin and I have this perspective, so i said, ‘be Tom Chapin; sing some songs, talk about what you know,’ and it’s been really fun. I did a mass teachers’ convention, the California Kindergarten Teachers Association, and the New York City convention for the teachers’ union, which of course was preaching to the choir.”
“Not on the Test” was successful, Chapin believes because “it articulates something about music and song; if you can crystallize and bring out a complicated subject in a little musical nugget, it’s very powerful, and that’s why every dictator’s first thing is to wipe out the intellectuals and musicians. Music is powerful, and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Tom Chapin has long been involved with children and education, having been the host of the critically-acclaimed children’s program “Make a Wish” from 1971 to 1976. The program, a mix of animation, stock footage and vintage clips on a given topic, tied together by a free association monologue by Chapin and including a song written by Harry, won a Peabody Award as Best Children’s Program in 1971. Unfortunately, the likelihood of the series ever being seen again is extremely slim. Chapin elaborates, “I actually talked to ABC, who owns it, and the lawyers are just… there are so many clips in there that they have no idea who owns. It was done by ABC News department, and they had access to this enormous range of footage, and they never cleared any of it. They just used it. It might be a black & white clip of Buster Keaton falling down, and the next one might be some person flying a kite, but they don’t know who the person is, they don’t know where it came from, so the lawyers go, we can’t give you the rights to this; we don’t know who these people are, we don’t have all the rights to this stuff. They got away with it on national television, but now they’re worried about it, and it’s driving me nuts, because I’ve wanted for years to do “The Best of Make a Wish,” have a DVD with maybe two or three shows together, ’cause they’re great. So the answer is, after many, many moons of trucking around trying to figure it out, the answer is it ain’t gonna happen.” However, Chapin offered a bit of consolation to fans of the show, suggesting that there may be a possibility of an album of songs from the show. “Harry wrote most of the music for the show, so Sandy, Harry’s wife, wanted to get the songs back; she got a lawyer, and ABC said, sure, you can have the rights to the songs, make an album or whatever, but we can’t give you the rights to do the TV show.”
What can parents do to help their kids become socially-responsible, actively involved, politically engaged people who will strive to “do something”? Chapin answers, “I think the biggest thing is, it’s very easy to be very isolated. Media, this new media, is always faster, better, bigger, but more and more isolating. It’s very easy to spend every night at home watching television; it’s easy for a kid to be on an iPod or some kind of game thing. If you really want your kid to be engaged, you have to be engaged with them, outside of the home, and connecting. I would say the best thing to do is to do something for the other guy. And there are so many ways to do that in your neighborhood. On your street, if you’re in the city, get involved with the block association that puts trees on the street or whatever it is. Get involved in a local food group; it’s about “do as I do,” not just “do as I say.” And there’s nothing quite so powerful, I think, as parents and kids getting involved in a group outside of themselves, it can be church, it can be community, it can be anything. Once you do that, you realize how close we are to each other.” Chapin illustrates his point, “the media vibe, the right wing vibe, is that everybody’s trying to rip you off, and watch out. But the reality is, it’s like the Survivor TV show, if you look at that, it’s the most ludicrous thing; the way to survive on an island is not to be the last one alive; it’s for you to work with everybody else so you all can stay alive! And that’s very true in terms of our world; what we need to do is figure out how we can work together.”
“I’m always an optimist about people,” Chapin asserts, “I tend to think the world is not as frightening as it’s made out to be all the time. The thing about my world is I see the best of humankind. I see parents with kids, and whoever they are, they all want the same thing, which is a world where their kids can grow up and have a life, and that means a world where the air is good, the water is good, the food is good, and you’re not fighting with your neighbor, not blowing stuff up, you’re trying to figure out how to work together, and I keep believing that it’s possible.”
Summing up our conversation, Chapin reminds me of a quotation from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” He adds, “of course we have power; the question is whether we want to do it.”
As the late Harry Chapin said, Do Something.