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Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Harry Chapin Tribute
Describing Harry Chapin to someone who never met him is a little like trying to describe a stage four hurricane - you have to have been there to really grasp the full impact. Harry's infectious enthusiasm dominated a room. He was so energetically Quixotic, and so charismatic a performer, that Harry consistently transformed his audiences from mere lovers of his music into dedicated volunteers in the struggle to end hunger. And as the performers on this record will attest he was also a very gifted. and all too often overlooked songwriter.
There are dozens of Harry Chapin anecdotes, but a few are especially illustrative of his unique (to say the least) character. There was the time in 1977 that Harry just about single-handedly convinced Congress and the President to establish the President's Commission on World Hunger at the White House enactment ceremony, Harry was still lobbying President Carter on the hunger issue despite the not-so-discreet objections of all those present. For Harry, it wasn't enough that Jimmy Carter was signing the bill into law - he wanted a governmental commitment to the idea of ending world hunger and didn't mind driving the President of the United States crazy in the process.
Then there was the bitter cold night in early 1981 that Harry and the band celebrated their two thousandth concert (an average of over 200 concerts per year, half of which were benefits). After a two and a half hour first set at New York's Bottom Line, during which Harry sung himself hoarse, the band trudged back to the dressing room to recuperate.
Not Harry. He bounded out the door to apologize to the hundreds of fans forced to wait in the cold while the club was being cleared. There he stood, without a coat, shaking hands, telling stories, and generally thanking people for coming to see him - all the while shivering from the cold - until the doors opened again. Then he played another three hour set, having established a rapport with his audience matched only, in my experience, by Bruce Springsteen and James Brown. I've never seen another performer show as much respect for his audience as Harry did.
Harry also expected a great deal from his fans. At every concert, he challenged his audience to think: Why are there so many children dying of starvation if there is more than enough food to feed everyone? How can the people of the United States, the world's wealthiest nation, permit 20 million of our own citizens to be malnourished? And after we finished thinking, Harry challenged us to do something, "Participatory democracy doesn't work the way it's supposed to if you don't participate," he would remind us.
At his very last public performance, Harry announced that he and his band had raised nearly a million dollars in 1980-81 to support emergency hunger relief and food self-reliance programs including his own World Hunger Year (WHY) organization. Harry, however, also wondered aloud why others in the music industry who professed interest in humanitarian causes were doing so little. That uncharacteristically public challenge to his peers, ironically, turned out to be Harry Chapin's last; in less than three weeks, he was gone, killed in an auto accident near his home on Long Island.
At the memorial service for Harry at the old Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights, the leaders of liberal America - from statesmen to music legends - gave Harry a posthumous standing ovation, and spoke hopefully of keeping his dreams and music alive. Privately, however, many voiced anxiety over a loss which they feared had severely set back the struggle to end world hunger.
Amidst the grief and doubt, the words of Harry's older brother James were most memorable. "It was Harry's greatest gift to inspire" he said. "and his death has not diminished that. Our job is not to attempt the impossible task of filling Harry's shoes, but rather to accept Harry's challenge to better fill our own." Many mourners - among them Harry's manager Ken Kragen and his old friend Harry Belafonte - made quiet resolutions based upon those remarks.
In late 1984, the world finally began to catch up with Harry Chapin. A BBC report on the famine gripping East Africa prompted singer Bob Geldof to launch his Band Aid project. Dozens of U.K. musical artists gathered to record the song Do They Know It's Christmas (Feed the World), the sale of which raised substantial funds for hunger relief.
Harry Belafonte seized the moment and contacted Ken Kragen. Together, they organized the mammoth, all-star USA For Africa project, which yielded the anti-hunger anthem We Are the World and raised consciousness and charitable donations globally. Live Aid and Hands Across America followed, and at long last speaking out against hunger - and doing something about it - were recognized as imperatives by the international music community. "It was Harry Chapin," Belafonte said, "who provided much of the needed inspiration to bring artists together to join in the struggle." Geldof, speaking at the United Nations, agreed.
Taking note of these landmark events, members of the United States Congress remembered the remarkable guy who had roamed their halls with his guitar and his soapbox, and they acted to recognize him. A rare bi-partisan initiative led to an even more extraordinary honor: Harry Chapin was designated as the nation's 115th recipient of its highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal. The short list of prior recipients - George Washington, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, Robert Kennedy and Marian Anderson, to name a representative few - evidenced the weight of the tribute.
In celebration of that great honor, Harry Chapin's friends and family threw him a benefit 45th birthday party at Carnegie Hall on December 7, 1987. The aim was to organize a charitable event which paralleled the experience of a Harry Chapin concert: a combination of music, information and inspiration, with the intimacy of a small gathering of friends. As you will be able to tell from the performances and testimonials on this recording, the evening was indeed one of those extremely rare, shared experiences that left both the artists and the audience with genuine feelings of warmth and exhilaration.
There were so many memorable moments: Oscar Brand and Pete Seeger, the venerable elder statesman of the folk movement, opening the show beside Harry's brothers Tom and Steve with a moving, rousing version of the Chapin anthem Circle; Ken Kragen, host Harry Belafonte and Kenny Rogers fondly recalling what a pain in the butt Harry was until they agreed to actively join in the fight against hunger; the audience helping an emotional Tom Chapin to sing Taxi.
Graham Nash's beautiful rendition of Sandy, which he dedicated to Harry's widow; Dolores Hall belting out Harry's spiritual When I Look Up in a gospel style which raised the Carnegie Hall roof; Judy Collins' memorable treatment of Harry's number one hit Cat's in the Cradle; Pat Benatar crediting Harry with pushing her toward developing her singing style before launching into a haunting version of Shooting Star;
Big John Wallace, Harry's bass player and vocal counterpoint, stopping the show with a version of Harry's Last Stand, which so moved the audience that it demanded a spontaneous encore; and finally, Bruce Springsteen, standing alone at center stage, telling of Harry's relentless pursuit of him - from hotel swimming pools to recording studio lobbies to industry awards shows - trying to convince him to become more involved in social issues.
The evening's greatest highlight, however, was the Medal presentation itself. Harry's son Josh accepted the medal from the Congressional delegation, walked it across the stage, and placed it on the empty stool upon which rested Harry's guitar. And for the second time since his death, Harry Chapin's life received a sustained and well-deserved standing ovation.
I hope very much that you enjoy the great songs and inspired performances on this album. Because of the nature of the event, a marathon concert with more than a hundred participants, there were some inevitable technical gliches in the recording process. The Chapin family and the artists involved, however, decided to permit its release - blemishes and all - in order to benefit the Harry Chapin-founded hunger charities, World Hunger Year and Long Island Cares. I am sure you will agree that the underlying passion of each individual performance more than makes up for the rare technical or human error.
I wanted to close with something appropriate. How would Harry, a man chastised every year by music award show producers for his refusal to stop plugging social issues on the air, have ended these notes? Most definitely, with a pitch for your greater involvement in social issues.
The task to end world hunger, like any grand and worthwhile endeavor, requires sustained commitment. Special events alone, no matter how heralded and star-studded, will not do the trick. Harry Chapin's message was to become involved in a process to help change wrong things into right ones. He understood that smaller acts done on a consistent basis almost always yield more progress in the long run than mega-events.
With that in mind, World Hunger Year invites you to begin your process of involvement by joining up and finding out what you can do to help. If Harry Chapin's life stands for one thing. it is that individuals can make a difference. That means you and me.
"Think about it," as the man said himself. "If a man tried to take his time on earth, to prove before he died what one man's life could be worth, well I wonder what would happen to this world ." Do something.
Charles J. Sanders.
World Hunger Year Inc. 261 W. 35th St., Suite 1402, NY, NY
10001 (212) 629-8850
The Last Protest Singer was the project he was working on at the time, songs for a movie that unfolded only in his head. With brothers Tom and Steve helping out on guitar and piano, Harry delivers his trademark sentimental homilies and honest emotion in his middling grizzly voice.
Not all of it measures up to his best work (here he's hamstrung by the structures of a narrow plot and an unvarying character) but there are affecting moments: allusions to John Wayne westerns in Last Stand, a roll call of poverty and injustice in Sounds Like America To Me, giving power the finger in I Don't Want To Be President. He wore his heart on his sleeve, but he told a simple kind of truth * * *
But what was far more striking about Harry Chapin than his songs, and known by far fewer people, is the incredible depth of his commitment to end hunger. Although he had earned many millions of dollars from his records and concerts, he contributed most of it to the antihunger foundation that he formed.
Not only was he a crusader on the issue of hunger, but he also was an extremely articulate spokesman. Although I didn't hear it myself, Senator Tom Daschle once told me that the single best speech that he'd ever heard was made by Harry Chapin talking about hunger. He said that by the time that the speech was over that Senator Paul Simon unashamedly had tears streaming down his face; it was that powerful.
What separated Harry Chapin from many people is that he defined family differently than its conventional definition. Although he had his own family that he cherished, he also knew that--in the ultimate sense--we are all family. That, I believe, was the real meaning of his life. Because if we realized that we were all family, we wouldn't tolerate the fact that one out of eight children in this country go to bed hungry. We wouldn't tolerate the fact that in this world there are hundreds of people who starve every day.
On this, the day that he died 10 years ago, we are reminded of the tragedy of his loss. Not so much for his talent, although he was talented, but for the fact that his love for others was so fully realized in the way that he led his life. The world is a colder, darker place without him.
On a day when most Long Islanders were together, crowding the beaches and waterways as the temperature headed to 90, a cool breeze blew on Harry's hill. The wind rustled the bushes and violets surrounding the late singer's headstone, actually a large rock his children once played on which was brought from New Jersey. In front of the rock lay remembrances from fans or family - a St. Valentine's Day mylar balloon, a dying bouquet of flowers, a crucifixion, two American flags. They partly obscured the bronze plaque and the words 'Harry Chapin 1942-1981.'
Below his name is his epitaph, a lyric from one of his songs: 'Oh if a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man's life could be worth, I wonder what would happen to this world.' The world lost Harry Chapin 10 years ago this month, when he died in a fiery car crash on the Long Island Expressway, near exit 40. Learning of his death remains a moment frozen in many Long Islanders' minds, like remembering where you were when you heard John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.
"I was riding on Jericho Turnpike that day," said Camilla Lippe of New Hyde Park. "And I saw a car burning on the expressway. You hope nobody is hurt. That night on the news I learned it was Harry. I was sick. I loved his music. I loved that he was a Long Islander. He seemed so nice. I didn't know him, but I really liked.
Everyone liked him, and everyone called him Harry. And so this writer will, too. As a singing storyteller, he was loved by millions. But as a Long Islander, Harry Chapin is remembered for much more than his music His enthusiastic commitment to the issues of hunger, arts, education and just making Long Island a kinder place made others care too. For many years he was the Island's conscience, as he organized and helped subsidize non-profit organizations, donating more than 50 percent of his income and his time to numerous causes. Most of the local groups he supported still continue. "He touched people," said Tom Chapin his brother. Ten years after he died, Harry Chapin is still touching people.
Dealing With Loss
There are the music fans. "I know why the 'Elvis lives' syndrome exists," Tom Chapin said. "Fans never had a chance to say goodbye. That works with Harry's fans, too. The family went through the grieving process, but for fans he's like an M.I.A. It's not final." Harry is still sent fan mail. The letters arrive at the Chapin Offices in a gray house on Green Street in Huntington. The two-story house serves many purposes for Mrs. Chapin, who owns it. Two rented apartments share space with the Harry Chapin Foundation, and the work space of Mrs. Chapin's personal assistant Nancy Elflein of Centerport.
"People are still writing, and they are still devastated by his death," said Mrs. Elflein, sitting under the gold record for Harry's song Cat's in the Cradle. Mrs. Elflein helps answer Harry's fan mail, even though she never met him. "I came to work here in 1984," she said. "But I feel like I know him." Those who knew him best were his family members, and it is through them that his legacy continues.
'It's Harry's Story'
Sandy Chapin is a flutter. She is on her way to New York City to discuss a movie about Harry. "I'm so nervous about it," said the woman who looks like Doris Day but whose mind operates like Eleanor Roosevelt's. A screenplay has been written, she said, and Oliver Stone has shown an interest in directing. Mrs. Chapin is part of the negotiations, "because I have the music," she said, "and they feel the music has to be part of the movie." Who might play Harry? There is talk of Kurt Russell or Jeff Bridges. Who would play Mrs. Chapin?. She looks shocked: "If I thought of that, I couldn't even start a project like this," she said. "I don't see myself in the movie. It's Harry's story."
During the Chapins' life together, Mrs. Chapin stayed in the background, where she was happy to be, she said. "I was always in the corner of the room, never in the middle of it," she said. "When I was a committee chair, I didn't even want to give the committee report."
Although relatives and friends say many of Harry's issues originated with her, Mrs. Chapin plays down her part, saying that Harry came from a family of politically motivated people and that his energy was the key to all the success. "He raised the money," she said. "He had the vision, and he had all the imaginative ideas to keep the whole project going."
But after he died, Mrs. Chapin's role could no longer be denied. Besides becoming the sole parent for five children - three from a previous marriage and two with Harry - she stepped out front to continue the projects. She organized the Harry Chapin Foundation, which distributes money to projects that were of interest to Harry like the Long Island Philharmonic and the Huntington Arts Council and projects that would have been of interest, like a recent donation of $6,000 to Ward Melville High School for a course on fighting hunger. She oversees Long Island Cares, which started under Harry as a local attempt to fight hunger, but which Mrs. Chapin has expanded to also fight discrimination. "The funds are harder to raise now," she acknowledged, "especially in this economic climate. I worry about meeting the payroll each month.'' She also keeps in touch with Bill Ayres, also of Huntington, who administers one of Harry's national projects, World Hunger Year.
"The organization almost fell apart after Harry died,'' Mr. Ayres said. "After all, he used to raise 85 per cent of the money. For two years we struggled. But with the help of family and friends, we're doing more now than when he was alive."
One of the reasons is Mrs. Chapin's dedication. But lately she has lessened her involvement with causes. "In the beginning I thought I had to do it all," she said "But now I realize I can't spend every day fund-raising. I'm not self-sufficient." Mrs. Chapin is beginning a project of her own. In September she will open Pueblo House, a shop and art gallery on Route 25A in Huntington.
Although the public viewed the sudden death of Harry Chapin as a great loss to the music industry and to grass-roots activism, it was the loss of a husband and father for her children that the shy Mrs. Chapin has the most difficulty talking about. "I miss him so much as a parent," she said. "My son Josh needed a coach for his soccer team. He asked if I could do it. That just killed me. Lots of things I just do. If Harry were here he'd get things moving more. His was the most interesting, stimulating mind I've ever come across. We worked so well together."
When Harry met Sandy, she was looking for a guitar teacher. "I had three little kids," she said. "I wanted music in my children's lives." After a courtship that was musical and romantic, if not lavish, the Chapins were married in 1968.
"We were so poor," Mrs. Chapin said, "a big date was going to Tad's Flame Steak House for a $1.29 steak." They first lived in Point Lookout "where I volunteered him for the Allard Lowenstein campaign," Mrs. Chapin said. After his singing career took off, the family moved to Huntington which has been home to the Chapins ever since. Jennifer and Josh came along, joining Jaime, Jonathan and Jason, or "the five J's," as they are called.
Although Harry's storytelling songs became hits, he could write and direct in any medium. Between 1969 and 1981, he won or was nominated for an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony, an Emmy and a Rockie. "A Rockie is the rock-music award," Mrs. Chapin said. "Many times they gave him a humanitarian award because they didn't know where to put him." He was constantly giving benefit concerts. The day he died he was on his way to another one. On her right hand Mrs. Chapin still wears the wedding ring her daughter Jaime designed for her and her husband. "Harry was buried with his," she said. And she still lives in the house they shared. "That's our house," she said, "it was our home. I'll never move."
On a recent night, the Chapin family, clad in their finery attended a black-tie ball sponsored by the Long Island Association. Besides Mrs. Chapin and Harry's brother Tom, there were Harry's children, Jennifer, 20 who has inherited her father's voice and her parents' activism, and Josh 18, with his father's, smile that makes you smile, and cavalier attitude to ward formal attire. Josh had borrowed a tuxedo for the occasion, and he wore it with brown boat shoes.
Surrounding them was a table filled with Harry's friends from Huntington. The singer received the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1987. To Mrs. Chapin's surprise, the Island business group decided this year to bestow its medal of honor on the Chapin family. Harry's wife cried as she accepted the award, and family and friends gathered on stage to sing All My Life's a Circle.
It was an evening of remembering. Tom Chapin performed Cat's in the Cradle, and the austere group of business leaders and politicians turned into music groupies with a real-estate developer, Jack Kulka, tapping his feet and Suffolk County Executive, Patrick G. Halpin and Msgr. Tom Hartman singing along.
The lumps in the throat grew to melons as Jennifer Chapin joined her uncle on stage to sing Sandy, a love song that Harry had written for his wife and that Tom had sung at their wedding. And those close to Harry talked of what they missed most. "I miss his friendship," Mr. Ayres said. "We were best friends, and I miss his incredible vitality. He was the quintessential American. If he saw a problem, he'd say, 'Let's do something about it.' "
"What I miss the most is him as an uncle," Tom Chapin said. "I have two children, Abigail and Lily. They want to know what Uncle Harry was like. He would have made a marvellous uncle."
For Josh and Jennifer, remembrances of their father are cherished. "When I was 5 or 6, I travelled with my father," Josh said. "I have memories of falling asleep with a raincoat over me next to an amplifier. ''He was a great father. I put him on a pedestal, but it's my mother that motivates me today. She made sure I was this year's co-chair of the fund-raising race for Long Island Cares. She keeps me in line.
"My mother has kept us all going," Jennifer said. Josh was 8 and Jennifer 10 when their father died. "I had such a fear of losing memories of him," Josh said. "But I can put a record on or read an article, and there he is."
Ten years after Harry Chapin died, his legacy continues on Long Island. "I used to pass exit 40 on the expressway and expect to see that charred mark," Tom Chapin said at the ball. "It was there for six months after he died. I looked tonight, and there's nothing there anymore. But then I came here, and he's still remembered. The guy made quite an impact didn't he?"
Chapin was a fearsome antiestablishment campaigner, playing 200 benefit concerts a year and lobbying like a demon, chiefly for the hungry. The compilation includes speeches - he was brilliant - and songs. Chapin's voice sometimes sounds like Chris De Burgh and sometimes cracked embarrassingly and he always had a sentimental streak as wide as America's budget deficit, but be cared - in fact he cared a lot. 'Cat's In The Cradle' was a TV movie in three minutes, 'Flowers Are Red', with Gilbert and Sullivan beat and conformity metaphor is typical [kid paints flowers wrong colour - sinister teacher puts kid right - kid gets upset - cowed kid goes to a new school - woolly liberal teacher says he can paint flowers how he wants] and 'Taxi' showed Chapin could do personal as well as polemic. He's sorely missed.
Harry Chapin - The Bottom Line