Harry Chapin was born in 1942 in New York City and started out as a documentary filmmaker. His Legendary Champions was nominated for a documentary Academy Award in 1968. Three years later he leaped into his true calling as a folksinger and songwriter.
In the early 1970s, America was divided into hostile camps, the young versus the old, swingers versus straights, the establishment versus the counterculture, Middle America versus the two Coasts. Many people saw themselves as outsiders, unable to fit in anywhere. Teeming cities and small towns alike sheltered sad, lonely, and spiritually impoverished people.
These are the individuals that Harry Chapin sang about in his first three albums: Heads and Tales, Sniper & other Love Songs, and Short Stories. These emotionally moving ballads focused on the lives of ordinary people — laundry workers, taxi drivers, disc jockeys, and others. By distilling complex emotions into a single episode, encounter, or event, Chapin was able to make deep feelings accessible to all of us.
On his album Verities and Balderdash, he took his music and lyrics one step further by placing many songs in the context of America's divisions and rifts. It was on this album that "Cat's in the Cradle" catapulted him to success; other hits were "Taxi" and "Circle." Chapin expanded his musical career with Broadway productions of The Night That Made America Famous and Cotton Patch Gospel.
This singer-songwriter committed to fighting hunger in the U.S. and around the globe. He walked his talk and co-founded World Hunger Year (renamed Why Hunger). While driving on Long Island Expressway, he was killed in a car accident at the age of 38.
To Name This Day . . .
Listen to some of Harry Chapin's music. There is a big selection on YouTube.
Here's a full concert:
Give yourself time to listen to his songs and think about people you know who have similar challenges, hopes, and dreams as those in his stories.
The song "What Made America Famous?" is on Harry Chapin's Verities
and Balderdash album. The youth in a small town are alienated from the adults. The narrator describes them:
"We were lazy longhairs dropping out, lost, confused, and copping out
Convinced our futures were in doubt and trying not to care."
They live "in the house that made America famous. It was a rundown slum, the shame of all the decent folks in town. We hippies and some welfare cases."
Then a fire brings results that no one expects. Afterwards, the narrator sings:
"I went to sleep with the hope that made America famous.
I had the kind of dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school.
Of the America that made America famous . . . and
Of the people who just might understand
That how together, yes we can
Create a country better than
The one we have made of this land,
We have a choice to make ach man
who dares to dream, reaching out his hand
A prophet or just a crazy God damn
Dreamer of a fool — yes a crazy fool."
Read all the lyrics here.
- Compare the forces that have polarized this community (the song was written in 1974) to what is happening in the United States today.
- Why do you think it takes a near tragedy to break down barriers?
- How would you reply to the last lines:
"There's something burning somewhere.
Does anybody care?
Is anybody there?
Is anybody there?"