Music and a Message
Twenty years after his death, Harry Chapin's artistic and activist legacies continue to be a part of our lives. Following is the text of Newsday's commemorative article on the life and times of Harry Chapin, founder of Long Island Cares:
by Karin Lipson, Staff Writer
Date: Monday, Jul 16, 2001
AS AFTERNOON turned to evening 20 years ago today, thousands of fans of the singer-songwriter Harry Chapin poured onto the grassy knoll above Eisenhower Park's Lakeside Theater, happily waiting for his free Thursday-night concert to begin.
They were there to hear Chapin, a resident of Huntington Bay who was both a national folk-pop star and their own, local troubadour, perform some of his famous "story songs”: the long, winding tales of taxi drivers and disc jockeys, fathers and sons, factory workers and waitresses, whose lyrics many of them knew by heart.
Instead, what they heard, from the security guards who had gotten the word through the crackle of their two-way radios, or from the official announcement, left them stunned and weeping.
Chapin was dead, following a fiery collision of his car and a tractor-trailer on the Long Island Expressway.
As they digested the news, many of his devoted followers refused to leave the park, instead sitting on blankets and talking quietly or singing his songs in a spontaneous tribute to the 38-year-old performer.
"He inspired me to write my first song,” 17-year- old Nancy Heller of East Northport told a reporter that evening. "I came up to him at a concert and said, ‘Will you be my friend?' He said, ‘Forever friends.' My God, how he touched me.”
In his relatively brief career, Chapin touched many with his unique blend of entertainment and social activism. He was propelled in both spheres by a whirling-dervish energy that left others struggling to keep up.
"He was just a living dynamo,” recalls Heller, now a lawyer in Cleveland. "If you asked me who would play Harry Chapin in the movies, the only character who had the energy would be Robin Williams.” Chapin, Heller says, "was multitasking all the time, before they invented the word.”
Or, as his friend Robert Redford once put it, Chapin was like "Halley's comet on a revolving cycle of once every hour.”
THOUGH HE WAS, by several accounts, an avid self-promoter early in his career, much of his almost demonic energy was eventually refocused on the societal changes he hoped his stardom could help bring about. Before the era when every performer seems to have a favorite cause -- a phenomenon that many think Chapin helped create -- he lobbied tirelessly to end world hunger: He helped found Long Island Cares -- a food bank now chaired by his widow, Sandy -- and co-founded World Hunger Year, an organization that gives aid to grassroots groups across the country. He testified in Congress and was instrumental in the formation of a presidential commission on hunger.
"He was a great lobbyist,” says Bill Ayres, the late-night WPLJ radio host who founded World Hunger Year with Chapin and is now its executive director. Ayres and Chapin became friendly after the singer appeared on Ayres' ABC radio show in 1973. Ayres communicated his own concerns about Third World hunger, especially in drought- and famine-ravaged Africa, to his friend. "This was not a tough sell,” says Ayres, who notes that Chapin was eager to add meaning to his life. And, as was his way, Chapin soon ran with it -- often literally.
"I walk very fast, and I couldn't keep up with him,” Ayres recalls of their time together in Washington, where Chapin began spending several days a week, collaring congressmen in the cause of a unified policy to combat hunger. "We'd walk down the halls of Congress, and I'd be behind him,” Ayres says. "He was driven, there's no question about it. We'd try to get him to slow down, and he wouldn't.”
Nor was his focus just on the international or national scene. A big booster of Long Island's cultural identity, he was a driving force behind the (now defunct) Performing Arts Foundation of Huntington and sat on the boards of the Eglevsky Ballet and the Long Island Philharmonic, whose formation he had urged to replace two smaller regional orchestras.
And he put his money where his mouth was: Of Chapin's more than 200 yearly concerts, half were benefits for the causes he treasured. He often prodded other entertainers to join his causes -- a formidable task, given his own high-octane efforts.
"There were people he kind of turned off, because he was pushy,” Ayres says.
"He was very demanding,” recalls veteran folksinger Oscar Brand, who once came with fellow musician Richie Havens to play a combined afternoon-evening benefit concert in Huntington.
After the first concert, "We just wanted to sit down,” Brand says. "And Harry said, ‘Wait, they want you to sign autographs and recordings.' So we did that. After a while, Richie said, ‘We do eat, don't we?' because we also had an evening program.”
Reminded that his guests were wearing out, Chapin managed to get them a bite to eat before the evening performance. "That night, we gave the concert, and afterwards, Harry said, ‘Listen, a lot of our sponsors want to meet you,' and so we had a reception. And that was a long day. I wouldn't have allowed it if it was our own concerts. But Harry wouldn't take no for an answer, because he knew he was doing something that was right. And I never felt as if he were pushing his ideas on you.”
Another time, as Brand tells it, Chapin came to help out at the last moment, without his band, when Brand's own folk festival at Nassau Community College suddenly lacked a key entertainer. ("Loudon Wainwright III couldn't make it; his plane wouldn't take off,” Brand explains.)
"So my manager called Harry, and Harry came driving madly, as usual,” Brand says, "to close the show.” After singing a few songs, Brand remembers, Chapin "said to the audience, ‘You know, I feel funny, I feel naked without the band behind me.' But Harry Chapin did not need the band. He did not need the voice. It was all in his mind, to reach the audience. There was something burning in him, to grasp the audience and send them out happy.”
In part, Chapin's need to entertain was family-derived. His father, Jim, a respected jazz drummer, had played in the bands of Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman. His younger brothers, Tom and Steve, launched musical careers of their own, for a time playing with Harry.
Harry's career really took off when he was 28, following a 1971 stint at New York's Village Gate, which was owned by Art D'Lugoff. "A very warm, nice guy, very outgoing,” is how D'Lugoff remembers him. "He was a good musician and he held people's interest, in spite of the fact that some of his songs were quite long.”
Actually, he initially failed to hold the interest of Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra records, which ultimately signed him to a contract. "I heard him at the Village Gate. I wasn't impressed,” Holzman says. "But I also wasn't very sure. Maybe I wasn't in the mood; maybe they weren't on.”
Chapin had done a demo tape for Elektra, so Holzman, after flying out to California on business, listened to the tape "while riding up and down the Pacific Coast Highway.” This time, he was sold, not only by Chapin's "impeccable song craftsmanship,” but because "Harry had the essential quality of authen.ticity -- he sounded like he was telling the truth. And I think one reason Harry was so successful was that people thought they were getting the straight story from him.”
So (after a bidding war with Columbia Records) Elektra put out Chapin's first solo album, "Heads and Tales,” including his hit single, "Taxi,” in 1972.
A SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL saga of lost opportunities seen through the eyes of a cab driver, "Taxi” was classic Chapin -- a long, melodic narrative, with an unusual admixture of sophisticated irony and raw emotion.
The same threads -- lost chances, irony and poignant emotion -- run through another Chapin hit, "Cat's in the Cradle,” written with Sandy Chapin. In this case, a father is too busy to pay attention to his young son, only to find the tables turned years later when he hungers for the love of his grown -- and emotionally distant -- offspring.
These probably still are the best-remembered of Chapin's story songs, described by Brand as "a series of traditional ballads” that "could have been sung 200 years ago.”
Chapin's troubadour approach didn't always go over big with critics, especially the rock and roll establishment. ("The Rolling Stone Record Review Guide” called his work "emotionally overwrought” and "simplistically preachy,” despite "fine craftsmanship.”)
But to Brand, Chapin "really did a remarkable job of synthesizing contemporary music with traditional folk music.” What Chapin produced "was almost a big-band folk music,” Brand says. "And it made him accessible, not only to the younger people being brought up on R&B, but the people who were teenagers in the '60s. He was reaching a wider audience than most of the folk performers.”
Chapin "did not have a great voice the way Judy Collins has a great voice, or the way Burl Ives had a great voice,” Brand says. "He was having trouble with his voice in the end,” a problem, no doubt, exacerbated by his constant touring. But all that travel to give concerts in the hinterlands -- including towns that other stars rarely visited -- added to his grassroots appeal.
Folk music historian Ronald Cohen, a professor of American history at Indiana University Northwest (and a proponent, with D'Lugoff, of a folk-music museum), generally agrees with Brand's assessment of Chapin's popularity. Chapin "was a very important figure because he made it into pop stardom,” Cohen says. "If you'd asked most people in the '70s or '80s to name a folksinger, they'd say Dylan and Harry Chapin, because of ‘Cat's in the Cradle' and a couple of others, rather than Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger.”
Still, all that was 20 years ago, or more. If celebrity is fleeting -- especially in a society where we talk, without too much exaggeration, in terms of "15 minutes of fame” -- what can be the legacy of a man whose death occurred so long ago?
It's difficult to pinpoint, but interest in Chapin continues in surprising ways. According to Soundscan, a firm that tracks record sales back to 1991, Chapin's album sales in the past 10 years tally up to 1.1 million -- not off the charts, but far from shabby for someone who left the scene two decades ago.
Chapin CDs, old LPs, signed photos and even unused concert tickets are traded on eBay.
And biographer Peter Morton Coan notes in his book "Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story” (Citadel Press,$16.95) that "at last count there were more than 105 Web sites dedicated to Harry Chapin alone” -- again, a number that becomes remarkable given how much time has passed since his death.
Singer John McMenamin, who performs a show of Chapin songs ("an appreciation, rather than an impersonation”) in various New Jersey venues, also attests to the strength of Internet interest in the late singer. "I've had people come from Texas, Florida and California to see these shows,” says McMenamin, whose most recent concert, a benefit in the Chapin tradition, included members of Harry Chapin's band. "They found out about it on the Internet, and then they would buy tickets and arrange their weekends, or sometimes come on vacation to see the show. It's amazing to me.
"After the show, they come up. Everybody seems to have a story about meeting him or the way he touched their lives. He used to spend hours after concerts signing autographs and talking to anyone who wanted to talk to him.”
According to Sandy Chapin, letters from fans keep coming in a steady stream. While it is difficult to measure Harry Chapin's musical legacy in any direct way, "what I do know is that new people are discovering his music,” she says. "I would say the majority of the people I've heard from over the years were introduced to the music by their parents. But there's also a group that comes to it by word of mouth, a friend, or bumps into it somehow.
"A lot of the letters are quite involved and personal, and people say they go to the music in times of problems,” she notes.
And therein may lie his ongoing appeal, his widow muses. "His public persona was tremendously upbeat. People said to me, ‘Is Harry ever down?' and he was actually either up or out -- out being asleep,” she notes.
"He was a cheerleader. But because the songs were fiction and were stories, he could talk about his real feelings. Somehow, the way he expressed the stories about other people -- some of whom he knew and others were some interpretation of feelings -- they really connect in a very real way to people's lives.”
Because of the ongoing interest, Sandy Chapin says, "we're launching a new Web site called Harry Chapin Music [at harrychapinmusic.com]. Its official opening date is Aug. 1.” The main function of the site, she says, will be to alert fans to upcoming releases by the Chapin family of previously unavailable material, such as a CD culled from songwriting workshops that Harry Chapin conducted at home.
If Chapin's musical legacy must be filtered through 20 years of changes in the music world, his mark as a social activist is, in some ways, easier to assess. While some of the causes he supported, such as the Huntington-based Performing Arts Foundation, failed to survive, others are alive and functioning.
The Harry Chapin Foundation, with Sandy Chapin as its president, gives financial support to a wide range of community-based projects and organizations through yearly Self Reliance Awards. World Hunger Year, under Ayres, had some financial difficulties in the past, but continues to act as a clearinghouse of resource information for grassroots organizations. Its annual pre-Thanksgiving "hungerthon” radio fund-raisers (launched in 1975 by Chapin and Ayres), which were previously limited to New York, will be held this year by Infinity Broadcasting radio stations in 35 to 40 markets nationally, according to Ayres.
And Long Island Cares continues its activities, with Sandy Chapin as chairwoman of the board.
Beyond the specific organizations that bear his name or imprimatur, Chapin may well have set the standard for involvement in social causes by an artist. According to biographer Coan (who was for some years embroiled in a legal dispute with Sandy Chapin over his book, "Taxi”), "The ‘we are the world, we are the children' thing” of the 1980s, "that was inspired by Harry.
"Harry Belafonte [who helped organize African relief efforts] told me, ‘I got my hunger education from Harry,'” Coan says. And when Belafonte got a public service award at the 1986 Grammys, he told his audience "it was Chapin who started this whole thing when nobody was listening.” In 1987, Chapin himself was honored posthumously for his hunger activism by a Congressional Gold Medal.
In truth, few artists since have duplicated Chapin's almost frenetic level of social involvement. (Of course, few others have the same inexhaustible energy.) And his music today, according to folk historian Ronald Cohen, may be heard principally on "these oldies but goodies shows,” which tend to play the two or three best-known pieces -- again, not surprising, especially given the length of his story songs.
To old fans like Nancy Heller, though, the proof of his ongoing popularity is out there. "The years go by, and you figure, ‘OK, the world marched on, and his music was forgotten.' You can't even get his stuff, because the record companies haven't released all his albums [as CDs],” she says. "Then you go on this chat site and you find 400 people from all over the world. A lot of them weren't even born the year when he died, and they love his music.”