Today is usually remembered as Pearl Harbor Day, in remembrance of Japan’s surprise attack on the Hawaiian military base on the morning of December 7, 1941. But the world has changed in many ways since the US entered World War II 74 years ago; Japan is now a trusted friend and ally and our old animosities are best forgotten and laid to rest. I think it’s high time December 7 became known as Harry Chapin Day, in honor of the man born one year after the infamous attack, given the impact he’s had over the last four decades.
Some people may remember Chapin as the “Cat’s in the Cradle” guy, the folksy singer-songwriter with the long story-songs; most people, especially those under the age of 40, most likely just said “who?” And how did this musician from the ’70s impact the world in any lasting or meaningful way?
I became a Harry Chapin fan long before I ever heard “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “Taxi” or “W*O*L*D”; way back in 1971, when I was in seventh grade, a new show appeared on ABC’s Sunday morning schedule. It was called “Make a Wish” and it ran for five years. It was an educational program hosted by a genial guy named Tom Chapin ; in each segment, they would take a common word (for example, “bull”) and explore all the possible uses and meanings through news footage, animation, interviews and stock film clips, and Tom would sing a song about the word. The songs were entertaining, and it turned out they were written by Tom’s brother Harry, who was then making the transition from Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker to musical performer. His first album, Heads & Tales, was released a year later. Between 1972 and 1981, he released a total of 11 albums including a pair two-disc live concert collections. Only four of his songs cracked the Top 40: “Taxi,” “W*O*L*D,” “Cat’s in the Cradle,” and the follow-up to “Taxi,” entitled “Sequel.”
Chapin’s music became very important to me; he, more than anyone including my parents, taught me about compassion, integrity, honesty and how to be a decent human being, often by illustrating the miserable lives of lousy ones. In “Mr. Tanner,” a mild-mannered dry-cleaner takes a chance on a singing career, only to be brutally eviscerated by callous music critics (based on an actual newspaper review, quoted word-for-word in the song); “Flowers Are Red” tells of a battle of wills between a creative child and a rigid schoolteacher; “W*O*L*D” tells the story of a self-involved radio disk jockey throwing himself a pity-party; “Copper” is a first-person account of a corrupt police officer angrily berating somebody who almost revealed his crooked conduct to his teenage son, jeopardizing the boy’s image of his heroic cop dad. In all these songs and many others, Chapin serves as a journalist, reporting on but never judging these people, inviting us to understand them and offer them some pity and forgiveness. Some of his songs, such as “Corey’s Coming” and “A Better Place to Be” can bring us to tears, while others, like “Sniper,” about a mentally disturbed young man shooting the terror-stricken residents of a college town and the media frenzy that follows, can fill us with horror and revulsion. In all of them, the human element is front and center. But that’s not how he made his mark on the world.
In 1965, Chapin shot a documentary film about poverty in Africa; years later, hunger was in the news due to a famine in the short-lived African nation of Biafra. Chapin became involved in fighting hunger and used his celebrity status to lobby politicians to take action, often performing at campaign rallies for candidates from across the political spectrum from Socialist Michael Harrington to Republican Bob Dole. Aside from his work for world hunger, he also served on the boards of the Eglevsky Ballet, Long Island Philharmonic, Hofstra University and the Performing Arts Foundation (PAF) in Long Island, and raised funds for environmental causes, arts groups, and health organizations including multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis. All told, somewhere between a third and half of his annual income went to charity; in 1976, he performed 230 concerts, only 100 of which went to support his family and band; the other 130 were benefit performances. He earned approximately a million dollars that year, but gave away $600,000 of it, only 30% of which was tax deductible. At one point he considered taking out a mortgage on his house to support the PAF Playhouse.
But that’s not where his impact comes in. By 1976, having already founded World Hunger Year (WHY), which is today called WhyHunger, Harry was now spending so much time pestering President Jimmy Carter about world hunger that Carter finally agreed to appoint a Commission on the subject, under the condition that Chapin serve as chairman. He did so, and then, along with fellow musicians Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver and James Taylor, created the Food Policy Center, a non-profit that existed to monitor the President’s Commission on World Hunger.
In 1981, Harry was killed in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway. At the time of his death, his widow, Sandy, said (with very little exaggeration) that “Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations and 82 charities. Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people,’ so he gave it away.”
“Oh if a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth I wonder what would happen to this world.”
A couple of years before his untimely death, musician Kenny Rogers had become so annoyed by Chapin constantly badgering him to “do something” that he finally made an offer, saying he’d donate a million bucks if Harry would stop asking for more. Harry responded that a million dollars would not feed the poor for a week, but it could be put to better purpose: if Rogers endowed an annual award for journalists who wrote about hunger and poverty, the publicity would generate a lot more money and attention. In 1982, the Kenny & Marianne Rogers World Hunger Media Awards were presented for the first time, awarding journalists cash prizes of up to $2,500 each for stories about world hunger. By 1985, the famine in Africa was in the news on a regular basis.
Musician Bob Geldof, seeing the news reports, created Band Aid and produced the benefit song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which led to the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia in 1985. After the success of the record, Harry Belafonte called Chapin’s former manager, Ken Kragen, and suggested putting together a benefit concert featuring African-American artists. Kragen had been considering the same idea. Kragen suggested that an album would raise more money than a concert and would be easier to organize quickly. They both said that they realized that if Harry Chapin were alive, he’d already be doing it, but since Chapin was gone, they’d have to do it themselves. They formed USA for Africa and recorded “We Are the World.”
The success of Band Aid, Live Aid and USA for Africa led in turn to Farm Aid, Media Aid and Ken Kragen’s own “Hands Across America” campaign to address poverty in the US. Kragen explained his involvement by saying “I felt like Harry had crawled into my body and was making me do it.”
When Harry Belafonte accepted an American Music Association award for “We Are the World” in 1986, he said “Harry Chapin died five years ago, but he had thrown a pebble into a pond, and I saw the ripples; it reached Bob Geldof, reached me, reached Willie Nelson, reached millions of people around the world.”
On December 7, 1987, Harry Chapin was posthumously presented with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian awards bestowed by the United States. First awarded in 1776, Harry Chapin was only the 127th recipient.
Today, 73 years after his birth and 34 years after his death, Harry’s influence continues to be felt; not only is “Cat’s in the Cradle” a perennial cultural touchstone, popping up on The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Two and a Half Men, Family Guy, Scrubs, Modern Family and How I Met Your Mother, but WhyHunger, the Harry Chapin Foundation, and Long Island Cares continue to fight the issues of hunger and poverty. An offshoot of WhyHunger, Artists Against Hunger & Poverty, carries on the Chapin tradition of using music and the arts to spotlight these issues.
In case you don’t know the musical work of Harry Chapin, here’s a playlist of ten of his lesser-known songs, focusing on his more political and social activist side. I’ve focused on live performances as much as possible, since the difference between Harry on stage and Harry in the studio is significant.
Last of the Protest Singers
What Made America Famous?
On the Road to Kingdom Come
There Only Was One Choice
I wonder What Would Happen to This World (performed by his daughter, Jen Chapin)
Why Do the Little Girls
Story of a Life
Sounds Like America To Me
Remember When the Music
Happy birthday, Harry.
“We can’t fill Harry’s shoes, and we shouldn’t even if we could; we need to fill our own shoes.” – Jim Chapin