Music Rewind: The Activism & Storytelling Of Harry Chapin
Some of his songs have become such standards that everybody has heard at least once or twice. Tunes like Taxi, WOLD and a song which has become almost a parody of itself: The Cat's in the Cradle. Very few people these days could name the artist that wrote and sang these famous pop tunes and fewer still realize that he wasn't just a singer and a musician and songwriter: He was also a poet, a film maker, a fighter against hunger, a political activist and truly one of the most outstanding entertainment figures with a social conscience that the 20th century ever witnessed.
During his very short life critics were not kind to his music. They called it treacly and saccharine. They did not appreciate the fact that this great singer songwriter dedicated his life in music to telling stories not just beating on three chords with repetitive balderdash. At a time when pop music was lost in meaningless lyrics and elementary chord changes, millions of people purchased his albums, and countless thousands thronged to his up to 300 concerts each and every year in order to enjoy the truly great human stories that this poet had set to unforgettable music.
But his greatness did not stop at penning songs, as he was one of the greatest fund raisers and activists for eliminating world hunger. How many people who hear his songs today are aware that on the time of his untimely death, this songwriter and hunger activist was extensively eulogized in the United States Congress for his remarkable and tireless fundraising work?
There was only one person who was able to do all this in 39 short years and his name of course was Harry Chapin.
He was born in New York City in 1942, exactly one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour. He spent the first decade of his life in a tiny 100 year old house on West 11th Street near the New York Central Railroad. His amazing knack and musical talent was generally given to him genetically from his father Jim Chapin who was a drummer with Big Bands. Jim Chapin never quite made it to the big time but his abiding love of music was certainly transmitted to his child.
Jim and Harry's mother Elspeth divorced when Harry was just 6 years old. Elspeth eventually remarried and her new husband Henry Hart was a strict disciplinarian which did not suit Harry, who often was outspoken against his step father and outright challenged him on occasion.
In 1954 the family moved to the Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood near the Brooklyn Bridge and after graduation from Brooklyn Technical High School Harry applied to the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado as well as to New York's Cornell University.
He first went to the US Air Force Academy where he was hazed unmercifully. Harry asked for authorization to resign but faculty members at the Academy called him a quitter. Rejected, he entered the School of Architecture in Cornell University but his grades plummeted and his scholarship to Cornell was terminated.