You may or may not know it, but there are two online petitions dealing with the late folk-singer/activist Harry Chapin (1942-1981). The first is “Induct Harry Chapin Into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame” . The other is “Put Harry Chapin on a Postage Stamp”. Years ago, Harry received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded to a civilian in America. if Harry were British, he’d have been knighted. Harry deserves everything he got and everything he gets now.
In a world where we have far too long thrown around the word “deserve” with no real meaning, Harry Chapin deserves everything he got while he was alive, and he deserves everything he can get after his death. Why? Because he worked for everything he got, because he used his talents to their utmost and he never forgot “the little people” — people others would call unimportant. In short, he made the most of a life that a person can. In psychology, we talk about personal growth and people becoming their “best self”. Harry was — at the time of his death, and for many years prior — his “best self”. Beyond his own life, he pointed the way for others to become their best self.
Let’s start with his talents. Harry Chapin was an artist. He received an Academy Award nomination for a short film about boxers called “Legendary Champions” in 1968, at the age of 26. At the end of his career, he wrote a musical version of the book series “Cotton Patch Gospel” by Clarence Jordan, Between those things, Harry was a folk singer who wrote some of the most memorable songs of the 1970’s, the era of the singer-songwriter. First among these was, of course “Taxi” about a taxi driver, romance, and the ironies of lost dreams, followed by “Cat’s in the Cradle” about the effects of not spending time with your children (ironically, as Harry pointed out, with lyrics written by his wife about his time on the road) and “W.O.L.D”. about the down-side of being a disc jockey. His last hit was the ending to the “Taxi” story — “Sequel”.
If he had only written those songs, he’d be remembered by the general populace and he would deserve as much. It is all the other story-songs that Harry wrote make him worth putting in the Hall of Fame. His songs ran the gamut of serious (The Shortest Story, about a child’s early death from hunger in Africa) to humorous (50,000 pounds of Bananas” about a truck accident in Scanton, Pennsylvania) from straightforward (“Flowers are Red” to philosophic (“Circle”), from songs about his heroes (“Old Folkie”, written for Pete Seeger”) to songs about people that never quite made it (the story of “Mr. Tanner”, based on a bad review in the New York Times), Harry never forgot anyone.
Criticized for writing songs “too long for radio”, Harry used the time in each song wisely. If it took 8 minutes to develop a character, Harry gave the character 8 minutes. If it was a song for children, it was a song short enough that children could sing it (the song “Circle” was written for a Children’s show, “Make A Wish” that his brother Tom worked on). People and their lives, as Harry knew well, are too complex to limit to a fleeting thought or feeling. They are made up of small moments that add up to that meaningful insight or life-changing event. There is a back-story to people’s actions and Harry took the time to find it. The idea that a story needed to remain short isn’t borne out in literature and it wasn’t borne out in Harry’s music.
Characters that highlight the richness that is human life populated Harry’s songs, and a concert by Harry did the same thing, Harry’s song “Taxi” features a part sung as a soprano by a large, tall, hairy man named “Big” John Wallace, and concert-goers looked forward to hearing it every night he performed. While other bands were losing drummers to drugs, Harry’s was losing cellists to overwork. Songs could feature jazz, blues, bluegrass, or rock styles and there were plenty to go around. Nor did Harry horde the stage. His band — often featuring his brothers, John Wallace and Howie Fields — felt like an ensemble cast. They would contribute songs and banter, and he clearly loved and admired each of them. Harry’s bandmates knew their music as well, and it seemed like he used their talents to their fullest.
Harry liked the little guy, because Harry always seemed –despite his innate talents — to be the little guy. For a man who could orchestrate a complex piece of music, his songs also reflected that he thought himself lucky to have found his wife and he seemed to wonder out loud what she saw in him. Able to write something as meaningful as “Taxi”, he nonetheless had audiences reminding him that some endings to his songs “sucked!” at every performance. It is perhaps this irony most of all which Harry brought forth in his songs — the talented middle or lower-class person who generated wonder in others’ lives. He saw the artist in the grade-schooler, the opera singer in tharm e mid-western tailor. the pious man in the Dance Band on the Titanic, the voice in the lonely wife of a “concrete castle king”, and the mystery in Old John Joseph’s stories. Harry’s songs reflect the beauty and gifts that so many around us possess, and so few of us get credit for — over-achievers who are undervalued.
In the way that Steinbeck’s stories told variations on a theme, so did Harry’s songs. For that, and the sheer fun of seeing him live in concert, mixing it up with bandmates and audience members, showing off his incredible musical gifts (which I think I saw 8 times in his short life), doing that thing which only music can do, Harry deserves a permanent spot in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Regarding postage stamps: they are for the medals that citizens give for special people — leaders in their fields, but somehow more than than that. When Black History month comes up, people like Charlie Parker get a stamp. Parker is not only a brilliant musician, but he was a man ahead of his time. Amelia Earhart got a stamp — not just a pilot, a woman ahead of her time. These people, ahead of their time, only get recognized for their gifts years later, when we realize just how incredible they were. Lincoln, Einstein, Marie Curie all have stamps because we catch up in maturity to these people. This is not to say that they weren’t popular at the time they were alive. They were. Still, popularity comes and goes as fast as today’s news and now the latest internet meme. Lasting importance requires time and maturity as we catch up to where these leaders were early in their lives.
Harry Chapin is such a person. Dead at the age of 39, he was years ahead of the rest of the world in all sorts of respects, mostly in the area of hunger. Before Bob Geldof was responsible for Live Aid (and became “Sir” Bob for his work), there was Harry. Before Farm Aid brought millions of dollars to needy farmers and kept people fed, there was Harry. Before Bruce Springsteen and so many others did benefit concerts and corporations gave money to causes, there was Harry, giving and giving and giving. Chapin is known to have said, “one for me, one for them” about concerts and the hungry. Did many people outside of Harry Chapin fans hear about this? No. Why is that? Harry didn’t give to increase his fame and sell records. Harry did it because he was convinced it was the right thing to do, so he did it. If others wanted to, he would encourage them in following their dreams of justice, but Harry wasn’t about to give up active activism. In a world where people give millions of dollars because it makes them look good, I hope people will catch up to Harry’s giving because it is good, whether or not they profit.
How did Harry spread the news about hunger and get money for charity? He did the things that made the most sense to him — he worked for it and he connected with all those “little people” that he sang about. For hours after a concert, Harry would sign things, take pictures, chat with people, laugh and joke and love his fans as much as they loved him. In return, he would take whatever you could give and give it to hunger charities. I remember taking a date to a Harry concert and him saying nice things about her, smiling and letting me take a picture of the two of them. Somewhere in my photo album is a copy of that picture and it never fails to make me smile. This was not perfunctory, it wasn’t for a required amount, it wasn’t for even for Harry. It was for his just-your-average-people fans and the hungry — people we have since become convinced don’t matter. He told us we did matter and — more importantly — we could matter to others.
Politicians and people like Ralph Nader said about Harry that he was a model as the best citizen he could be. Harry talked to us as though he saw in us the best citizens we could be. He didn’t talk down to us — musically or lyrically on stage, and he didn’t talk down to us off of it either. I still believe I can be somebody, and at least part of that comes fro
m memories of Harry — either from a story song which connected me to others or one of eight concerts where I heard him sing — sometimes raspy voice and all. Every once in a while, I listen to his music because I need to — to remind myself what people can be and can do with just one life — with humor, warmth, strength of character, the silent dream that just keeps chugging along throughout a life, and the innocence of children. Harry managed to notice it all. Now that we’re ready, It’s our turn to notice him. Give Harry Chapin a postage stamp.
If you would like to support either of these motions, here are the links for more information: For Songwriting: http://chn.ge/14uYOTJ
For the stamp: see the “Put Harry Chapin on a Postage Stamp” group on Facebook.