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Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Dave Marsh Tribute:
September 1981

HARRY CHAPIN 1942-1981
Author: Dave Marsh
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: September 3rd 1981


Harry Chapin often described himself as a "third-rate folk singer," and judging from most of the reviews he received in these pages and elsewhere, he wasn't only kidding. Yet Harry Chapin was something more than that. For many who knew him, he was a legitimate hero, not so much for his music as for his consistent and conscientious willingness to fight the right battles, to stand up for a just cause, no matter how hopeless.

When his friends and political associates - from Marty Rogol and Bill Ayres of World Hunger Year to Ralph Nader and Representative Tom Downey - spoke of Chapin after his death in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway July 16th, the word they all used was fearless. "It was the one quality of Harry's that I admired most," said Rogol. "Harry was never afraid. Not just physically. Where most people feared embarrassment, being laughed at or rejected, Harry just went right ahead. He just wanted to know what was right and what was the best way to accomplish it. That's real courage."

As Chapin was the first to acknowledge, such bravery isn't cool, for it lacks the necessary arm's-length distance from the world and its problems. And it was that lack of cool that gave Chapin his negative image. It always gnawed at him that he never got particularly good reviews. He made jokes about what the critics had to say: that he was preachy and didactic, a simplistic and woeful singer, a careless craftsman in the studio, emotionally overwrought on stage. I still can't see that these criticisms were wrong, but I also know they weren't entirely correct either.

Harry Chapin's function in the music world was not to be cool. He was supposed to be awkward and overtly unhip; he was supposed to stand in contrast to the glibness and callousness of many of his peers. If the ungainly accents and sputtering diction of some of Chapin's songs can't kill their power, that is because more important things than simple aesthetics are at work in those tunes, and because Chapin wasn't working in a pop context of craftsmanship and cool, but from the folk-music traditions of the American left.

Harry Chapin was a pure product of the Fifties world of Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights. Born on December 7th, 1942, he was the second son of Big Jim Chapin, a jazz drummer with Tommy Dorsey's and Woody Herman's bands. From the time they were in grammar school, Harry and younger brothers Tom and Steve performed together in various groups, Harry at first playing trumpet but later switching to guitar.

After high school, Harry studied at the Air Force Academy, from which he dropped out, then at Cornell University, where he flunked out twice. In 1964, he re-formed the family group, adding his father on drums. The Chapin Brothers played the usual rounds of Village clubs and folk-scene hangouts and recorded an album, Chapin Music, on the Rockland Music label. But the band broke up when Tom and Steve returned to school, and Harry soon turned his attention to film, eventually making several documentaries, including Legendary Champions, a boxing film that earned him an Oscar nomination in 1969.

A year later, at the height of the singer-songwriter boom, Chapin resumed his musical career. After playing the Village Gate in New York for the entire summer of '71, he was signed to Elektra Records. In 1972, he scored his first hit, Taxi, from his debut LP, Heads and Tales. Ten more albums followed, yielding a handful of other hits notably Cat's in the Cradle, W*O*L*D, Sniper and last year's Sequel, a follow up to Taxi.

An eclectic artist, Chapin also wrote a Broadway play, The Night that Made America Famous. Though the show - a multimedia musical that combined elements of theatre and rock & roll with advanced film and lighting techniques - closed shortly after opening on Broadway in February 1975, it nonetheless won a pair of Tony nominations. A 1977 revue, entitled Chapin, was styled after Jacques Brel's Alive and Living in Paris and enjoyed a seven-month run at the Improvisation Theatre in Hollywood. It also played in several other cities, and, according to Chapin's manager, Ken Kragen will now be revived. Although he never sold a spectacular number of records, Chapin toured a great deal and his concerts were always well attended; it's estimated that his benefits alone netted more than $5 million for various charities.

On July 23rd, Harry Chapin's family and friends held a memorial service for him at Grace Church in Brooklyn Heights. There was some fine singing that afternoon by such musicians as Tom and Steve Chapin, Oscar Brand, Steve Goodman, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow and Harry's idol Pete Seeger. Along with family members and politicians, fans and paparazzi, they sang and celebrated, and some of the best singing and celebrating came during Harry's songs: Circle, Remember When the Music and a new tune, Jubilation, that may be the best thing he ever wrote.

These songs weren't Chapin's patented stories, the extended moralistic fables that earned him his reputation. But they were the tunes that struck closest to the true spirit of the man - simple folk songs appropriate to any gathering of the faithful, whether sung around a campfire or at a mass rally. And they stung my eyes, because I knew for once what they were created for, and I knew for certain that they were very good songs indeed.

If Harry Chapin was more than a third-rate folk singer, he was less than a pop star of the highest order. Even so, the immediate response to his death, in the media and among his fans, was overwhelming. It was as if he reached out and touched lives in a permanent and irrevocable way. This was true of fans (one speaker at the Brooklyn service was a railroad brakeman), of journalists (the finest eulogy to Chapin was written by former sportswriter Tony Kornheiser, a friend from Long Island, in the Washington Post) and, most of all, of Congressmen.

Three of the speakers at Grace Church were members of Congress. Representative Tom Downey, the young Long Island Democrat, was an obvious colleague, but Representative Ben Gilman is a more conservative, older New York Republican. Gilman was there because, through his work with Chapin on Jimmy Carter's Presidential Commission on World Hunger, he came to cherish Harry as the best kind of American citizen. Most eloquent of all, though, was Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the only Democratic senator that state has ever elected, and a man who attributes his narrow victory in 1980 to Harry Chapin's campaign work for him. Leahy was the chief mover in the Senate effort to pass a resolution in support of the hunger commission, and because Chapin also had a vacation home in Vermont, the two had grown personally close. Leahy's eulogy was well written and moving, but what I'll always recall was what he said before he read it: "You know, I think I've shed more tears in the last few days than at any other time in my adult life."

On the floor of Congress, the reaction was very similar. No other singer - not Bing Crosby, nor Elvis Presley, nor John Lennon - has ever been so widely honored by the nation's legislators. Nine senators and thirty congressmen paid tribute to Harry Chapin on the floor and not all of them were the kind of liberal Democrats on whose behalf Harry had campaigned so long and hard last fall. No less a conservative than Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, not exactly known for his political generosity of spirit, called Chapin "a liberal, and a liberal in the best sense of the word. He possessed a spirit of generosity and optimism that carried him through his various commitments with a great sense of seriousness and purpose ... What he was really committed to was decency and dignity."

Harry Chapin was just the sort of man who would inspire tributes even from ideological foes. He believed deeply in all those corny virtues and ideals that the rest of us are too cynical, jaded or just plain scared to admit that we, too, cherish. "He constantly talked about reinventing America," remembered Bill Ayres, the writer and broadcaster who in 1975 founded World Hunger Year, an educational and research organization with Chapin. "In his vision, the Constitution established a democratic process in which people were being asked not just to vote, but to be informed and involved." And Chapin acted on that belief.

Though he is best known for his activism on the hunger issue, Chapin was also a member of the Cambodia Crisis Committee and raised money for the Public Interest Research Group and Congresswatch (two Ralph Nader organisations), as well as Consumer Action Now. In addition he campaigned on behalf of such past and present senators as Leahy, Mo Udall, Frank Church, Gary Hart and Alan Cranston. And on Long Island, where he lived with his wife, Sandy, and their five children (Jaime, Jason, Jono, Jenny and Josh), he was a member of the boards of Hofstra University, the Long Island Association, Long Island Cares (a local hunger effort), the Action Committee for Long Island (a convocation of businessmen), the Performing Arts Foundation, the Long Island Philharmonic and the Eglevsky Ballet.

Chapin focused on hunger at least partly because it touches on so many other crucial issues, from the political power of multinational corporations to basic land reform. "Harry was big on empowerment," said Ayres. "The idea of World Hunger Year isn't simply to put food in people's mouths, but to help them change their lives, to get people involved in their own desire to help themselves. Harry wanted to reach both people who are hungry and people who feel left out of the political process. He did not want to motivate people through guilt; he wanted to combine a sense of awareness of responsibility with a sense of life."

Chapin's elder brother, James, summed Harry up more succinctly. "Most great men appear greater because they manoeuvre to diminish other people. But if Harry was a great man, and I think he was, it's because he really did feel better when everybody else felt better. He always remembered that the average person isn't you or me or even an American worker but someone living in the slums of Rio or Bombay."

Chapin worked with unique focus and effectiveness in lobbying Congress to endorse the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger. He succeeded partly because so many congressmen were nonplussed by such energy and commitment from a celebrity, but also because some would have done anything to get rid of his pestering. In his eulogy, Leahy recalled a meeting with President Carter, at which the president agreed to create the commission. "Harry would not stop. He continued to hammer the reasons for it into the President. Carter sat there trying to explain that he agreed, but Harry wasn't going to let him off that easy. He wanted not only for him to agree, he wanted him to be committed. That's the difference between Harry Chapin and those who simply give lip service to a cause."

Unfortunately, the hunger commission was ineffective. Except for Chapin. His unique combination of celebrity and commitment created a real congressional constituency for his ideals and dreams, and he was still putting together plans for hunger legislation and public-food-policy initiatives when he I died.

Ralph Nader called Harry Chapin "the most effective outsider I've ever seen in this town, and that was due mostly to Harry's conviction that all his work-musical and political, artistic and charitable-should not be "event-orientated", but committed to a process in which each segment leads naturally to the next, and into which others can be enticed and pulled along. It worked at all sorts of levels, from the fund-raising Radiothons he and Ayres staged in ten cities over the years, reaching an audience of 15 million people, to the new chapter of World Hunger Year recently created in Arizona.

The question now is what happens without Harry Chapin? At meetings, Chapin used to stress the involvement of others, not only by good-naturedly disparaging himself, but by pointing out that "if I should walk across the street and get hit by a taxi tomorrow, what's left of this organization?" It was one of his greatest hopes that other musicians would get involved in the hunger issue in the way that some have become involved in antinuclear activism, for instance James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot, among others, have appeared at World Hunger Year events in recent years, and in early July, just a few weeks before Chapin's death, Kenny Rogers donated more than $150,000, the entire proceeds from a show at the Capitol Center in Largo, Maryland, to the organization. But none of these performers is likely to bring a continuous and persistent focus to bear on hunger or political issues, none of them is likely to subordinate his career to the cause of feeding the world (or, as Harry surely would have corrected me, helping the world to feed itself), social justice and more perfectly ordered democratic institutions in America. Those were the causes at the center of Harry Chapin's work, which was not so much a career as a vocation. And as with all vocations, they belong to the man who hears the calling. In this regard Chapin really is irreplaceable, and even a great many rock stars and ordinary citizens working together won't make up for what we have lost.

To continue Harry's work, and to make certain that his family's needs are met, Ken Kragen has announced the formation of the Harry Chapin Memorial Fund. The fund has been given an initial $10,000 contribution by Elektra Records, and it will be further endowed by a benefit performance on August 17th at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. Kenny Rogers, who is also managed by Kragen, will headline, and according to Kragen, rock managers Irving Azoff and Jerry Weintraub have volunteered their support.

Promoter Ron Delsener, who conceived the Nassau Coliseum show, caught the true Chapin spirit when he said, "Harry did a benefit for everybody else, now it's time for us to do one for him." And all around the country, according to Kragen, people who bought advance tickets for Chapin's late-summer concert tour are refusing to take their money back.

Chapin used to warn his friends and political associates against what he called "event psychosis" -the kind of thing he and Ayres nearly stumbled into in 1974 when they wanted to stage "another Bangladesh concert" for the relief of victims of the Sahelian drought. One's most fervent hope at this time, then, is that all the organizing going on around the causes that Harry Chapin supported endures, that people remain committed, because Chapin was right: it is getting harder and harder to "remember when the music was the best of what we dreamed of." Harry Chapin may have been naive to think things could be that simple again, but only a real fool would deny that this dream is at the heart of what drew us all to music. This is one of those times when the line gets drawn.

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