Chapin's Fight Far From Over
20 years after activist's death, battling hunger is tougher than ever
Samuel Bruchey, Staff Writer
Date: Monday, Jul 16, 2001
Strangers sit elbow to elbow at the Bread & More INN soup kitchen in Riverhead, spreading two and three plates before them on long dining room tables. Four corner fans trap hot air under a low ceiling and mute the busy shuffle of plastic utensils. When one person finishes, there are bags of bread or canned vegetables by the door to take and almost always someone else looking for a seat.
"So many people depend on us," said Deedee Newcomb, who runs the kitchen.
"We've had to get more food, add a second dinner. It's almost impossible to keep up with the need." In 1980, when musician and activist Harry Chapin founded Long Island Cares, most people were unaware of the need for a food bank. At the time, there were no other food banks and not one soup kitchen in either Nassau or Suffolk counties. The organization began by distributing to a few churches and senior centers, but last year it supplied 2.4 million meals to nearly 500 food agencies across the Island. For Chapin, who died 20 years ago today at 38 in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway, Long Island Cares' expansion would have been anything but welcome.
"If Harry were still alive, I don't think he'd be happy to see what this problem has grown into," said Fran Leek, who runs a food pantry at St. Hugh's of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station.
When Chapin first took up the cause in the early 1970s, his widow, Sandy Chapin, said Long Island was not his focus.
He threw potluck dinners with friends at the couple's Huntington Bay home, she said, and stood at an easel in the living room talking about places like Bangladesh.
"He was so determined to make his life matter," she said.
He and a friend, Bill Ayres, founded World Hunger Year, an organization to unite the efforts of grassroots groups to provide food, funding and attention to hunger. He successfully lobbied for a presidential commission on U.S. hunger and the passage of the Good Samaritan Law, to encourage American corporations to donate leftover food. He performed more than 200 concerts per year, she said, and gave the proceeds of half to charitable causes.
Today, Long Island Cares has an operating budget of $2.5 million, said executive director Lynn Needelman, and receives and distributes food from a network of county, state and federal programs, plus individual contributions.
Nationwide, about 32.2 million live beneath the poverty line of about $17,000 for a family of four, said Ayres, executive director of World Hunger Year. On Long Island, there are about 300,000 people who don't have access to adequate food, Needelman said.
"When Harry founded Long Island Cares, he thought we were going to eventually put ourselves out of business," she said. "Now we know that will never happen." The Rev. Rose Marie Gaines said continuing cutbacks in food stamp programs are among the main reasons. Gaines has run the Helping Hands Rescue Mission in Huntington Station with her husband, the Rev. Jimmie Gaines, for 36 years. Four times each week, she hands out homemade soups and sandwiches from her blue minivan, which she calls her "breadmobile." She has about 75 homes on her route, she said, but every time she goes out more people ask to be added to the list.
"I toot the horn and families come running," Gaines said. "People I know and people I don't. I feed families with children, working mothers. People you'd never imagine." Another reason, said Tom Waring, president of Island Harvest, a nonprofit food distribution organization in Mineola, is that there are working poor on Long Island.
"A lot of people have jobs but can't pay the rent and the bills and support a family," Waring said. "Something has to give; unfortunately, it's often food." Island Harvest gets by on a $1.2-million operating budget, Waring said, because it primarily relies on volunteers to load and deliver donated food in donated trucks to both Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Last year, however, Island Harvest hired several paid drivers, Waring said, because agencies are becoming increasingly reliant on their food.
"People who volunteer have the best intentions, but if you're not depending on the work for your salary, real life has a way of interfering," he said.
Increased demand has meant that some groups have had to bend their rules, Leek said. The four-meal-per-year limit is no longer strictly enforced at St.
Hugh's, especially when it comes to clients who have been relocated by the Suffolk County Social Services Department to places such as the Oneida Motel in Huntington Station.
"It puts a strain on us, but we can't say no," Leek said. "We just have to count on people to donate." That, she said, is why Chapin's legacy is so important.
"Because of Harry, people have bothered to get their hands wet and dirty," said Jean Kelly, executive director of the Interfaith Nutrition Network, a collection of 18 Long Island soup kitchens based in Hempstead. "He helped us look at people in need and realize how similar they are to us." Although she had forgotten about the 20th anniversary of his death, Gaines said, every now and then she is reminded of Chapin's legacy in a letter, or a note accompanying a donation.
"They tell me they are reminded of Harry or that remembering him made them want to give." Newcomb, who runs Bread & More, said she even sees that same spirit in some of the Riverhead needy.
Bill Moore, for one, has come to Bread & More twice a week for two years but won't eat, unless he can help pick up trash and fold the tables against the wall.
And then there's John Walker, who lays asphalt for a construction company but needs a free meal now and again. He takes bagged food back to friends who are too old or who drink too much to make it to the soup kitchen for the free meal, because, he said, "it should always be one for me, and one for the other guy."
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.”