Chapin Songs - Music of my youth
When I started this song I was still thirty-three
The age that Mozart died and sweet Jesus was set free
Keats and Shelley too soon finished, Charley Parker would be
And I fantasized some tragedy'd be soon curtailing me
(From There Was Only One Choice, by Harry Chapin)
Harry Chapin's prophetic lyrics would come true just a few years after he penned them. It's been more than thirty years since his tragic death on the Long Island Expressway, but I still can't listen to this song without getting emotional.
I've been a fan of Harry Chapin since I first heard "Taxi" on the radio in 1972. People sometimes compare Harry to Jacques Brel, whose music I also enjoy. Both were great song writers and story tellers and each had the soul of a poet. Both spoke of the sorrow, loneliness, and hypocrisies we encounter in life, and each had a unique talent. While both artists painted pictures of the gritty underside of our existence, Chapin's songs left us feeling that there was hope after all - that people are basically good and will do the right thing if given the chance. Harry's humanity was evident in his music and dedication to helping others. Whenever he performed, you could tell that he loved presenting his music to the audience.
A Very Sad Day
I was on my way to his concert at Eisenhower Park when I heard the news on the radio.
Later that day I was working the overnight shift at Kennedy Airport in New York. We had the radio tuned to a talk show hosted by Harry's close friend, talk show host Bill Ayers. After many personal recollections, he opened up the phones lines. Caller after caller related stories of their own encounters with Harry. Each one showed him to be a down-to-earth, generous person who loved life and loved interacting with people. One particular call has stuck
with me all these years. A woman said that she was a student at SUNY Albany where Harry was giving a concert. When the concert was over, he stepped up to the microphone and said "If anyone is driving back to Long Island, I need a ride." The caller said that she and her roommate offered Harry a ride and he accepted. When they got to the toll booth on the New York Thruway, Harry handed the driver money for the toll. "Harry, keep the change" she said to him as she pushed his hand away and he laughed.
What Made America Famous?
Harry Chapin's songs always seem to put things into perspective for me. He could point out the inequities and hypocrisy all around us, while still expressing hope that things would get better. In What Made America Famous, he tells of compassion and shared vision between two groups on opposite sides of the great divide that split the country in the 1970's.
Champion of the Unheralded
Many of Chapin's songs celebrated the lives of ordinary people. People who go to work everyday, laboring at unglamorous jobs to eek out an existence. These lives have stories to be told and Harry was the only one telling them. Corey's Coming is one such song.
The audio for this clip is not very good, but the performance is wonderful.
A Better Place To Be
Another poignant and touching story is told in A Better Place To Be. A night watchman has a chance encounter and shares tenderness with a stranger.
And if you want to come here with me, then that's all right with me.
'Cause I've been oh so lonely, lovin' someone is a better way to be.
Harry wrote and recorded many songs, some of which I have not yet heard. In a strange way, I count this as a blessing because it means that there is still a reservoir of new Harry Chapin songs that I can tap into from time to time.
Harry Chapin dedicated his life to helping others in need. His legacy lives on, not only in his music, but in the many the charitable institutions he built, most notably World Hunger Year and Long Island Cares . If you enjoy Harry's music I urge you to contribute what you can and keep Harry's dream alive.
For more information, please visit the official Harry Chapin website.