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Harry Chapin

Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Memorial &
Obituary Pieces

Harry Chapin, Singer, Killed in Crash
Author: John Rockwell

Publication: The New York Times
Date: Friday July 17th 1981

Harry Chapin, a folk-rock composer and performer active in many charitable causes, was killed yesterday when the car he was driving was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer on the Long Island Expressway in Jericho, L.I., the police said. He was 38 years old.

The Nassau County Police said that a flatbed tractor-trailer owned by Rickles Home Center of Paramus, N.J., struck Mr. Chapin's car at 55 miles an hour as the car shifted lanes with its emergency lights flashing near exit 40 at Jericho Turnpike at 12:27 P.M.

The force of the crash crushed the rear of the car, a 1975 Volkswagen, to the pavement, sending off sparks that set its fuel tank aflame, the police said. The truck driver, Robert Eggleton of Plainfield, suffered burns on his face and arms as he cut Mr. Chapin from his seatbelt and dragged him from the flaming wreckage, the police said.

Detective Donald Wecklein said Mr. Chapin apparently died from the force of the crash. He did not appear to be badly burned, the detective said, adding that he did not know whether Mr. Chapin's car had been disabled or why the emergency lights were flashing. No charges were filed.

Devised 'Story Song'
Mr. Chapin was pronounced dead at Nassau County Medical Center at 1:05 P.M. Westbound lanes of the expressway were closed to traffic in the area for three hours.

Mr. Chapin, who was to have performed last night at a free concert in Westbury, L.I., remained dedicated to folk music in an electrified rock age that prized ornate arrangements and pounding dance beats.

His principal contribution was his self-described "story song," a narrative form that owed much to older talking blues and similar structures. The subjects of these songs were often common people with poignant or even melodramatic tales to tell - tales of lost opportunities, cruel ironies and life's hypocrisies.

Mr. Chapin organized and appeared in many benefit concerts for causes, including a campaign against world hunger, environmental and consumer issues and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. At one time, more than half of his concerts were benefits.

Raised Thousands for Arts
He lived in Huntington Bay, L.I., and was particularly generous with organizations on Long Island. He raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Performing Arts Foundation, the principal theatrical group on Long Island, and mobilized the business community to support the arts.

Recently he stood in the rain for half an hour at a large benefit at Caumsett State Park in Lloyd Harbor, greeted each car as it arrived. The benefit raised $200,000 for the arts foundation that allowed the bankrupt group to begin working on a fall season. He also helped persuade the New York State Council on the Arts to support the formation of the Long Island Philharmonic.

"I think I've had the most social and political involvement of any singer-songwriter in America," Mr. Chapin was quoted as having said.

Musically, Mr. Chapin worked in a rather rudimentary idiom, allying a conversational baritone with earnest strumming on his acoustic guitar. But his records, especially in the early 70's, sometimes involved more complex musical textures. In recent years Mr. Chapin continued to tour throughout the country, even though mass sales and critical acclaim eluded him.

Father Was a Drummer
Harry Chapin was born on Dec. 7, 1942, in Greenwich Village. His father, James Chapin, was a drummer who worked with the bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Woody Herman, and Harry played the trumpet as a child before taking up the guitar.

Mr. Chapin left music while he studied at the Air Force Academy and at Cornell, and he later worked for a while in the film industry.

In the summer of 1964, he was reunited with his brothers Tom and Stephen and his father, and the family group played around Greenwich Village during the peak years of the Village folk scene. By the early 70's, after several personnel changes, the group became a backup for Mr. Chapin, and eventually released several albums. Mr. Chapin's biggest hit single was "Taxi," in 1972.

He also became involved with the theater. In 1975 he conceived a multimedia show entitled "The Night That Made America Famous," which received two Tony nominations, and in 1977 came "Chapin," a musical revue that played in several cities.

Mr. Chapin is survived by his wife, Sandra; five children, Jaimie, Jono, Jason, Jenny, and Josh; his father, James of Long Island; his mother, Elspeth Hart of Brooklyn; three brothers, James of Queens, and Tom and Stephen, both of Brooklyn; and two half-brothers, Jeb Hart of Brooklyn, and John Hart of Port Jefferson, L.I.
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Harry Chapin's Riches: The Troubadour Who Laughed at Fame & Gave Away His Fortune
Author: Tony Kornheiser

Publication: The Washington Post
Date: July 17th 1981

They called Harry Chapin a troubadour, but he was more of a novelist. He wrote short, poignant, biographical novels and set them to music. Novels about taxi drivers who have chance encounters with their first loves and choose not to go home. Novels about fathers and children who start out not getting close to each other and end up not even getting next to each other. Novels about lovers who get swept away in the heat of the moment. Novels about snipers and disc jockeys and heroic true believers who never lose touch with who they are.

And yesterday, when Harry Chapin died in a car wreck, he left behind the sort of novel that he wrote about so well. A man whose life ended abruptly in the middle. Between the search and the goal. Between the promise and the gift. Not yet there, but on the way.

He'd be giving a concert, and he'd sit on a stool, his guitar resting on his right knee, and he'd joke with the audience about the kind of songs he'd written. He knew that most of the critics thought he was a lightweight, and while that judgment offended him, it never discouraged him. He thought it hilarious that one rock performer was reviewed this way, "He was a rich man's Harry Chapin." Harry would laugh and say, "Look at where they've got me. They've got me as a standard for comparison. If anyone is lower than me, he has to be at the very bottom of the ocean."

He'd blush and tell the audience that when he was younger he had the nickname "Gapin' Chapin." And he'd call himself "a third-rate rock star." And then he'd turn up his energy higher, much higher than his amps, and sing his songs. "Taxi." "Cat's in the Cradle." "I Wanna Learn a Love Song." "Sniper." "W*O*L*D." And in his own way, for his special audience, he was every bit as popular and loved, and even worshiped like a Bruce Springsteen.

Harry Chapin could have been a millionaire.

Harry Chapin maybe should have been a millionaire.

But every year at least half of his concerts were free, either for charity or as a benefit.

He put his money where his mouth was.

I met Harry while doing a profile on him in 1976, a profile in which I accused him of not so much being a singer-songwriter as being a moralist. I believe the term I used was that he sand a course in Morality 101. He liked that. He laughed very loudly at that.

He had a great and rich and good laugh.

The last time I saw Harry, he gave a concert at Constitution Hall. It was a typical Chapin concert in that his energy was high, and the only reason he stopped singing was because he was told that if he stayed on stage even another minute they were going to have to put the help on overtime. Harry already had gone on for almost three hours and it was closing on midnight.

And after it was over, Harry went out into the lobby for a typical Chapin post-concert session. And there he would sell Harry Chapin albums, and Harry Chapin T-shirts and Harry Chapin song books. And on each one he would sign his typical Chapin message: "Keep The Change, Harry Chapin."

What was so impressive about what Chapin did wasn't so much that he signed every last thing that was thrust at him--even for people who hadn't bought a thing--but that every penny he took in from these sales didn't go into Harry Chapin's pocket, but toward charity, specifically

toward ending world hunger.

Later that night Harry and I and another reporter took a taxi (what else?) over to the American Cafe on Capitol Hill and sat around for a few hours solving all the world's problems. I knew how hard he worked for the cause of preventing world hunger, so of course I razzed him about odering a big, thick sandwich. And he came back at me the way he always did, by saying, "Look, I'm not asking you to starve; I'm simply asking you to try and spread the word that we grow enough food each year to feed the world easily. You've got access to a great newspaper here. For God's sake, use it."

And then we talked about the congressmen he'd seen recently, and how his lobbying effort was going, and how many charities and causes he was pushing. As ever, he was all high energy and optimism. I thought then and I think now that Harry Chapin was a worthy man. That he was a liberal in the very best philosophical sense of the word. It wasn't welfare he was talking about, it was decency. He used the phrase "enlightened self-interest." He said it made good sense to redistribute the food. Not because it was the noble thing to do, but because if you remove hunger and desparation you remove a major cause of crime and violence. If there is such a thing as a practical liberal, Harry Chapin was that.

And when we were all talked out about saving the world, we drank a few more beers and talked about Long Island, where we both were from, and remembered the afternoon we played touch football on his lawn, right next to Long Island Sound, and I insisted I was a better quarterback than him, and he insisted he was a better end than me. And laughed some more, his rich laugh filling the now empty restaurant, and just like on stage he was the last to leave, because if they didn't throw him out they'd have to pay the help overtime.

That night, a sleeting, crummy winter night, I remember him telling me that it was about time I stopped fooling around writing about celebtrities and started writing about the people who really controlled the world.

I remember me telling him that it was about time he stopped trying to save the world and started selling out so he could become a rock star. And I remember exactly what he said about that. He said, "Being a rock star is pointless. It's garbage. It's the most self-indulgent thing I can think of. I've got nothing against selling out. But let me sell out for something that counts. Not so Harry Chapin can be No. 1 with a bullet, but so I can leave here thinking I mattered."
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Chapin dies in car crash
Author: Colin Irwin & David Fricke

Publication: Melody Maker
Date: July 25th 1981

NEW YORK: Harry Chapin, responsible for several hits in the Seventies notably W.O.L.D and 'Cat's In The Cradle, was killed in a car crash in Long Island, New York last Thursday night, when his car collided with a tractor-trailer truck. He was 38.

Yet while he'll inevitably be remembered for the hits, Chapin's career covered an extraordinarily varied area, and the man himself was a more colourful character than his reputation as a singer-songwriter at the MOR end of rock might suggest.

A slightly bizarre streak often threaded through his songs, and Chapin held some unusual values about his work and the music industry.

He hero-worshipped Pete Seeger, regarded the industry he was in with wry cynicism, and dedicated himself to numerous causes from ecology to a campaign against world hunger. He was due to play a benefit show on the night of his death.

"But I'm not a propaganda artist," he used to stress. "I do a few benefit concerts, but I don't believe I should have a pulpit to lecture people from when I'm on stage."

He grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of a big band drummer, learnt classical trumpet as a kid, and started his musical career in a family group with his father and two brothers in the early Sixties. They called themselves the Chapin Brothers (and once described themselves as a "hip Partridge Family'' and made one album for Classic Editions in 1966. They broke up when Harry went to college to avoid the draft.

It was six years before he was to record again. But when it came, his first solo album, Heads and Tales (Elektra), also produced a hit single, Taxi, once cited as an inspiration for the movie Taxi Driver. In the intervening years he'd become involved in movies, ending up as a scriptwriter and director, and even getting nominated for an Oscar with one of his films, Legendary Champions, a documentary about prize fighters.

He never lost his interest in film and theatre, writing numerous film scores and even full-scale musicals (The Night That Made America Famous ran for seven weeks in New York). But it was the 1974 hit 'W.O.L.D, his oddly disquieting ode to American radio taken from his third album Short Stories, that really established him as a household name. The moral tale of Cat's In The Cradle', about the distance between father and son, underlined his popularity in Britain as well as the States.

Most fans, however, will contend that the peak of his musical career occurred in 1977 with the double album, Dance Band On The Titanic, a vaguely conceptual work that made an analogy between the sinking of the Titanic and modern society, while those on board refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation. "The problem is most of us are playing ostriches," he said. "I see my function as sensitising people to things that they already know.''

The easy-listening programmers who gave his work constant support over the years were doubtless unaware of the more sinister implications in his music, an irony that he must have thoroughly enjoyed. It wouldn't have bothered him, either, that he also offended hipper rock factions with a music that was widely considered to be flaccidly liberal and trite. His last album, Boardwalk, (Sequel Ed.) was released a few months ago.
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Chapin- 'good MOR'
Author: Nick Holliday

Publication: Unknown
Date: 1981

Ironically the tragic death of Harry Chapin, one of music's best storytellers/songwriters and one of only a handful of American MOR/folk artists to made any impact in Britain, went virtually unobserved by Britain's daily papers.

True, prior to his 'hits' 'W.O.L.D and Cat's In The Cradle he was virtually unknown here. But as radio latched on to these records and occasional album tracks, followers of his music became hooked. All this increase in popularity - though still small - was obvious from his 1978 concerts, which were invariably sparsely attended, to his last visit here in February of this year. He was often described as the "thinking person's singer'' and, not surprisingly, his Dance Band On The Titanic was voted album of the year by one Sunday Times critic in 1977.

Yet it was songs off his earlier albums that proved most popular among his fans. His often personal, wry look at life, his humour, the unmistakable voice backed by "Big John" (Wallace) along with the cello that so often dominated his music provided a unique and particular brand of music that I feel sure Harry would have described as "Chapinism" at its best. As for the man behind the lyrics? Well, that's another story. He'll be sadly missed.
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THE MAN WHO ALMOST MADE DJs HUMAN
Author: Fred Dellar

Publication: New Musical Express
Date: July 25th 1981

HARRY CHAPIN, the croaky-voiced singer, who provided stories rather than songs, died last week in a road accident while on his way to play a free concert. Chapin, who was 38, turned to a career as a solo singer in the early '70s, shortly after writing and directing Legendary Champions, a documentary film which won him an Oscar nomination. Previously he'd worked with the Chapin Brothers Band in Greenwich Village circuit. Then he began working with his jazz musician father and two of his six brothers, forming an outfit which Chapin once described as "a kind of hip Partridge Family". But this initial musical career ended when he was faced with a choice between conscription and attending University - Chapin opted for the latter course, after which he moved into the movie industry, working on some 300 productions in various capacities. Signed by ELEKTRA in 1972, he scored an immediate success with Taxi, a 6-minute plus single which climbed into the US Top Thirty.

He followed this with his best known song W.O.L.D, - the tale of an ageing DJ - which also entered the UK charts. In '74 his career peaked as Cat's In The Cradle, a song based on a poem by his wife Sandy, made number one in the US charts. This enabled Chapin to launch The Night That Made America Famous, a multi-media show which opened off Broadway in 1975 and gained a mixed reception from the critics.

In recent times, Chapin found further singles success hard to come by, although his albums continued to pull punters, a Greatest Stories-Live set going gold in 1978. Then earlier this year he signed for Neil Bogart's Boardwalk label and recorded Sequel, a well received album which gained a UK release in time to tie up with British concerts by the singer. But singing was just one of Chapin's many talents. He was also a fine pilot and even an expert pool player. More importantly he was deeply concerned with the subject of world hunger and consequently campaigned on behalf of C.A.R.E and other causes. Ever active, Chapin often complained that he rarely had enough time for all the things he wanted to get involved in. "When I'm 70 I'll probably wish I'd done this and that," he once said. But last Thursday his lifespan was tragically reduced to a brief 38 years.
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Letters to the Editor
'Harry Chapin Was a Citizen-Artist'

Authors: Ralph Nader / Mark Green
Publication: The New York Times
Date: Sunday July 26th 1981

To the Editor,
He died, July 17, as he lived - en route to a benefit concert and unrecognized for a time after the car crash. Of course, Harry Chapin's name and music were recognized. He had his share of successes ("Taxi," "Cat's in the Cradle," "W.O.L.D," "Sequel," and "Circle") and his share of devoted audiences and skeptical critics. But to talk about Harry Chapin only or largely as a singer-composer is like viewing Theodore Roosevelt as a state assemblyman or Babe Ruth as a pitcher.

More than any other entertainer in his generation, Harry was a citizen-artist. While other famous performers would only rarely spend their enormous bank accounts of fame or good will, Harry overdrew his account. He performed some 250 times a year and donated the proceeds from half of those events - more than half a million dollars a year - to a wide array of causes he cared about, from World Hunger Year to the Performing Arts Foundation on Long Island. And he worked hard beyond donating proceeds. He nearly single-handedly lobbied a resolution to create the President's Commission on World Hunger through Congress, got President Carter to create it in 1978, and actively served on it.

There were musicians who sold more records than Harry, but no one game more - in money, in time, in energy. If energy is genius, as Justice Holmes once remarked, then Harry Chapin was a genius. Unable to say "no" to anyone, he was late everywhere because he tried to be everywhere. With the schedule of a perennial candidate, he would often testify at some hearing in the morning, run an organizational meeting in the afternoon, and perform at night. At meetings, he was an irrepressible Niagara of ideas and comments.

At his concerts, he would of course sing, but he would also lecture - about love, politics, commitment. On the theory that you should never let a captive audience go to waste, he would perform and talk until evicted by his tight schedule or local curfews.

Harry liked to call himself "an intellectual pessimist and a political optimist" - and he lived that ethic. Within two weeks of the 1980 election, when many of the candidates he sang for lost, he urged one of us to start a new group to spur the progressive resurgence. "I'm just a third-rate folk singer," he joked, "but I can provide something that's very scarce in the liberal community - intellectual risk capital." So together with some 50 other progressive voices in the arts, letters, law, politics, business, and labor, Harry helped found The Democracy Project. Harry would call with ideas every two weeks from airports around the country, and would perform a concert a month for The Project, whose mission is to "develop alternatives for the next generation of progressive leadership."

Harry was precisely such a progressive leader. He had ideas and ideals, lived a life consistent with them, and took chances.

Indeed, doing so many benefits itself threatened his career. For people in the music business often condescend to those who sing too much for free - to people like Pete Seeger, for example, Harry's hero - on the rationale that no one would do for free what he could get money for. Yet even though his contributions went largely unrecognized by the media, Harry kept doing his benefits.

Until he tried to switch lanes on the Long Island Expressway.

The loss to his family and friends and causes is beyond words - the tragedy of an interrupted life of such good work. Then there is the sadness of knowing that his special character and heart were not only interrupted, but largely unheralded while he lived.

We hope that "Taxi" is sung as long as there are taxis and lovers with long memories. And we hope as well that Harry Chapin's legacy will include not only his music but his citizenship, so that others may learn of his example and emulate it.

For he was a model of what Justice Felix Frankfurter once referred to as the highest position in a democracy - the office of citizen.

That was no third-rate folk singer, Only a first-rate American.

Ralph Nader
Mark Green
New York City
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Harry Chapin Killed in Auto Accident
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: August 1981

As this issue of Rolling Stone was going to press, Harry Chapin was killed in a collision on New York's Long Island Expressway. The accident occurred at 12:27 p.m. on July 16th as Chapin, 38, was driving from his home in Huntington Bay, Long Island, where he lived with his wife and five children, to an appointment in Manhattan. Apparently, he was trying to change lanes when his blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer. Spokesmen at Nassau County Medical Center said Chapin died from a massive heart attack, but they were not sure whether it occurred before or after the accident. A gold pocket watch found on the body was the only initial means of identification.
A full tribute and obituary will be published next issue.
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Letters to the Editor,
published a few weeks after Harry Chapin's death in 1981:
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: August 1981

"At a time when commitment to an ideal is looked on with sneering derision, it is an enormously cruel blow to lose Harry Chapin. For those who have occasionally tasted the loneliness, the alienation, the love and wistfulness of which he sang, his music was a sweet reaffirmation that we were not alone in our feelings; much more important, he was an unswerving, effective advocate for those starving millions living on the brink of death.
"Chapin was a rare person; his life and his music will continue to be an inspiration, an example of what is right in a world where the night of fear, hatred and poverty seems to be getting darker."
Drey and Matt Samuelson
Sioux Falls, South Dakota  

"Harry Chapin talked to his audience--person to person--about the joy of being vulnerable to love, the craziness of rushing to our destinations instead of enjoying the journey, the idea that our dreams of fame and fortune can be traded happily for simpler dreams, the belief that one voice raised in outrage against injustice can be heard.
"A toast to you, Harry. Your songs are vintage wine to be shared in celebration of life."
A. Rooney Heuer
Elmhurst, Illinois

Page Index

 

A Simple Service for Harry Chapin
Author: Leo Seligsohn
Publication: Newsday
Date: September 1981

On a knoll overlooking the Village of Huntington, folk singer-writer Harry Chapin was quietly buried July 21 in a simple ceremony attended only by family and close friends.

Chapin, who was fatally injured July 16 in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway, was buried in the Untington Rural Cemetery on Route 110 shortly after noon, after a brief graveside service conducted by the Rev. Goldy Sherrill, pastor of the Grace Episcioak Church in Brooklyn Heights, where Chapin grew up.

Standing alongside a solid oak casket adorned with floral arrangements, Chapin's wife, Sandy, read a poem, "Sleep, My Beloved," by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of Chapin's favorite poets. The poem ended: "and I say to you whispering/and then half whispering/and then quite silently/"Sleep, my beloved . . ."

She stood alongside Sherrill and Bill Ayres, a former Catholic priest who was one of Chapin's best friends and who cofounded World Hunger Year with the songwriter. Sandy Chapin added a few words, explaining that the place she had chosen for his burial had special meaning.

". . . Harry loved to be near the water, so we found a place as high as we could with a view of the water. And from here, alongside 110, you can see all of Huntington without any sign of different neighborhoods. Harry always wanted to break down barriers between different sections and regions," she said. The grave would be marked by the planting of a tree and a large rock to be brought from Andover, N.J., where the Chapin family has long had a family farm, she added.

Ayres read from the first epistle of St. John and said, "Harry once said to me that if there is a God, it must be a God who recognizes our weaknesses and then hugs us. Well, now Harry knows who God is. He beat us on that one, too."

Chapin's father, jazz drummer Jim Chapin, and his mother, Elspeth Hart, stood at the front of the large ring around the casket. Near them were the Chapin children--Jamie, Jono, Jason, Jenny, and Josh, who was dressed in his soccer uniform.

Also among about 50 persons at the service was Bill Thompson, head of the Performing Arts Foundation. He announced, after the service, that PAF has been renamed the Chapin Theater Center in honor of its "benefactor and past board chairman." Also present was George Dempster, on the board of the Eglevsky Ballet and recently nominated for state commissioner of commerce, who announced a tribute to Chapin to be held Aug. 11 at the John Crawford Adams Playhouse at Hofstra University. The vent will be by invitation to "all those people involved in Harry's efforts to advance Long Island." Huntington Supervisor Kenneth Butterfield already has announced a public concert at Hecksher Park Aug. 3 honoring Chapin.

The burial involved a procession of about 30 cars to the cemetery, with Chapin's family in his green van following the hearse. The ceremonies at the cemetery ended with everyone holding hands and singing Chapin's "All My Life's a Circle," led by Chapin's brothers Tom and Steve. The final chorus was rendered in traditional style as the brothers shouted out, "Okay, a big ending now. Let's hear it for Harry."

Back at the Chapin house in Huntington Bay, Tom and Steve pulled out guitars and, with others, joined in singing all of his songs.
Page Index


A Stunned Audience At the Park
Authors: Lisa Belkin and Alan Finder
Publication: Newsday
Date: September 1981

East Meadow--By 6:30 p.m., when the word was passed on the security guards' walkie-talkis, thousands of Long Islanders of all ages had already made themselves comfortable on the grassy knoll above the Lakeside Theater in Eisenhower Park.

"All traffic out," the anonymous voice on the two-way radios said. "No concert." The guards spread the news quickly. Harry Chapin was dead, the victim of a collision six hours earlier on the Long Island Expressway.

Stunned, most of the loyal, hometown following which had gathered for Chapin's free concert, scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. July 16, refused to leave the park. They sat on blankets, some of them drinking wine and talking quietly. THey gathered in circles and sang his songs--a spontaneous but dignified memorial for the Huntington singer-songwriter who was very much their own.

"We were his friends, anyone in Huntington was his friend," said Ethel Fleiss of Huntington, who had arrived at about 4 p.m. with her daughter, Michele, to lay claim to front-row seats. "He was one of those guys who would rush up to you in the supermarket and kiss you even if he didn't know your name, but he knew he'd seen you before and he knew you were from Huntington."

Joe Fulco, 20, of Massapequa, a bodybuilder who once was "Mr. Teenage America," said he works out to Chapin's records. "That's why I'm here in the first place. That's why I'm staying," he said.

At 8:25 p.m., after the stage crew had gone home, several thousand of the 25,000 fans who had been expected to attend the concert huddled quietly in small groups. A crowd gathered in a circle around Nancy Heller, 17, of East Northport, as she played one of Chapin's songs, "All My Life's a Circle," on her guitar. They sand enthusiastically and passed a lighted candle around the circle.

"He inspired me to write my first song," Ms. Heller said. "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."
Page Index


A Tribute to a Friend
Author: Bill Ayres
Publication: Food Monitor
Date: September / October 1981

Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, musician, performer, poet, playwright, recording artist and filmmaker and occasional TV personality. As an entertainment figure he was also something of an anomaly:
He sold millions of records, yet he was generally scorned by most major rock critics;
He appeared on Broadway in his play The Night That Made America Famous but neither it nor his other plays survived long enough to make him famous;
He won an Academy Award nomination for his documentary film The Legendary Champions and yet few people knew of his cinematic talent and still fewer ever experienced it;
He chose to publish a book of his poems and sold twenty five thousand copies;
He rarely played to audiences of more than five thousand and yet because of his two to three hundred concerts a year he sang to more than a million people every year for the past ten years.
Harry had an indomitable spirit that could snap victory from the jaws of defeat or build new life from whatever small pieces remained after those very jaws had ripped apart major pieces of his world. He said recently, "I have probably had more big failures in the last five years than most people have ever dreamed of having."

Failure bothered him - enormously. The fear of failure haunted him every day, but it never paralyzed him, rather it impelled him to work harder, take bigger chances, face more difficult challenges, and develop further dimensions of his multi-dimensional talents. He would not allow events around him or forces within him to push or seduce him into depression, despondency or despair. Harry Chapin believed in the indomitability of the human spirit. "Given this short opportunity we call life, it seems to me that the only sensible way - even if you have pessimistic thoughts about the ninety-nine percent possibility that things are going wrong - is to operate on the one percent chance that our lives can mean something."

Through his life and work he made that most precious quality come alive for millions of people. His fans, friends and family have said how much they miss him, how unfair his death seems and how difficult it is to accept the loss of someone who always seemed so full of life and did so much good for so many people. I was his friend and partner for the past eight years and not a day goes by that I don't miss him. I miss the conversations we had and the dreams we shared of saving the world - or at least some little part of it. I miss the determination he brought to all of his tasks and the sense of humor that allowed him to be deadly serious about their success without taking himself too seriously. I miss the expected unexpected, the call that might come at any time of day or night from anyplace in the world, the endless flow of creativity that brought forth a new song one day and a strategy for moving a piece of legislation through Congress the next and an ever expanding world view that could also see connections where others would see only fragmentation or even chaos. Most of all, I miss his zest for life, his larger than life presence that remained long after he had hurried on to the next appointment in an already late and frantic schedule.

All of us who knew Harry Chapin will remember him for the best that he was and forgive him for what he could not be. (God knows, he tried to be all things to all people. When you choose that as a goal you're bound to disappoint more than a few people, especially those who love you the most.)

Harry gave us great gifts, a legacy, to be used not to perpetuate his memory but to enrich our lives and bring meaning and energy into a society that seems to be wallowing in listless cynicism.

THE CHAPIN LEGACY
The Indomitable Spirit:
"When in doubt . . . do something." This was his credo.

"I'd rather make a mistake than do nothing." He believed that inaction was the biggest and most debilitating of all mistakes.

"I'd rather be wrong than be frightened." He knew that most people do not act to improve their lives or their world because they are afraid. In the end, their inaction usually dooms them to live with the very consequences they were afraid of.

"The key to my life is that I'm willing to make an ass of myself." It was and he did often, but it rarely mattered. He was usually able to turn an embarrassing or disastrous occasion into a plus, or at least the story line for a new song. At an early age, his awkwardness earned him the nickname 'Gapin' Chapin.' He was never 'cool.' He made mistakes, often of catastrophic proportions, but he could always laugh at himself and bounce back for another try.

The Engine
Harry was, as he would have put it, "an energy source," "a self-starter," "an engine." People often suffered from mild cases of exhaustion merely by being in the same room with him for an hour. Several senators and representatives were known to have agreed to his proposals primarily to avoid further dealings with "the engine" - in this case a steam engine. Several other senators and representatives who knew and loved Harry were delighted with his no-nonsense manner of getting things done and some of them suggested he run for Congress.

The Surprise
Whenever there seemed to be a lull in the action Harry would say "Surprise me, I love surprises." Being with him was an endless succession of surprises. That was one of his many gifts, the ability to be open to surprises and to create them, even in the face of failure.

"The credo of my life is very simply, when in doubt do something. The errors I make are going to be errors of commission, not omission. I'm out there to live. I'm not frightened, or when I am, I still push."

The Tonality Of Quality
Although he probably would not have admitted it, Harry was typically American when it came to the question of size and quantity. Bigger and more were important to him, but after his initial success as a rock star he began to pay serious attention to the question of quality. He was more interested in the quality of his life and the world around him than in making more money or selling more records. With the help of his wife Sandy, his brother James and a few close friends he channeled his boundless energy, myriad talents and admittedly large ego into the pursuit of issues and causes that always had the tonality (one of his favorite words) of quality. He worked:

to eliminate world hunger;

to integrate education with the problems of the real world in a way that involves and excites people;

to make good music, dance, theater, film and other forms of culture available to the local communities;

to promote the active participation of business in the cultural activities and social well being of its communities.

"Yes we can. Yes we can dream. Yes we can believe. Yes we can compete. If a brave new America is one where we can't dream, I'm very frightened."

Reinventing America

Harry Chapin loved America and believed in the American dream. For him the dream meant:

the Constitution and the Bill of Rights;

a participatory democracy in which every citizen cares about and is active in the political process

vibrant local communities where people help each other to build a better society (I have often thought that if Harry had lived a hundred years ago he would have been a barn raiser);

the belief that anything is possible - a new world, a new life is in the process of being born and how exciting to be a part of it.

But, he was also painfully aware of the American nightmare:

20 to 30 million hungry Americans in a land of plenty;

staggering unemployment;

a public mood and an administration hostile, or at least indifferent, to the needs of the poor and oppressed;

mega corporations controlling so much of our lives and endangering both the freedom of poor people in developing countries and our national security.

"This nation is looking for a vision. We had 'manifest destiny'. We built the railroads, industry, won two world wars. We're looking for something grand and good to do. I don't have much hope of it happening, but feeding the world could be that thing."

Harry believed that what America is really all about is "the quest of every human being for human rights, human dignity and human needs." As he looked at the structure of our society, our domestic policy toward the aging, the nutrition and health of young children and our foreign food policy, he saw clearly that the country he loved needed reinventing, starting from the bottom up.

Most people immediately blame the President or the Congress for our problems but Harry said "We have no one to blame but ourselves. We have to expect that our leaders will mislead us unless we challenge them to greatness and then support them to sustain what is best in the American dream."

The dictionary defines a hero as a man of extraordinary courage; one who performs great deeds; the principal figure in a story or play. Harry Chapin was a hero at a time and in a society that desperately needs heroes. He was a flawed hero certainly, one who knew failures and who fell short of the mark in many of his most important ventures, but he was a genuine hero nonetheless. He had immense personal courage, the kind of drive and determination needed to accomplish great deeds, and his story did not die in that car crash on the Long Island Expressway.

We often make the tragic mistake of honoring our heroes with memorials - a gentle way to say goodbye - while we forget the real message and meaning of their lives. Harry hated goodbyes. He was almost incapable of saying goodbye because he always hoped that "we'll all get together again."

I suspect he is furious with anybody who thinks he or she is off the hook and rid of Harry the pest, the challenger, the conscience, simply by attending a memorial service, buying an album or making a contribution to the Harry Chapin Memorial Fund or World Hunger Year (an excellent idea, by the way). With his new connections I would not be surprised if many of us receive one of those unexpected calls just at the time when we have gotten complacent, given up hope or are on the verge of selling out.

On the other hand, why wait? I'm sure that Harry is quite busy in his new position as "Heavenly Adviser on the Tonality of Quality."

"My grandfather said something to me that I'd like to pass on to you. He was 88. He said something to me about three months before he died: 'Harry, there's two kinds of tired. There's good tired and there's bad tired. Bad tired, ironically enough, can be a day when you won. But you fought the wrong battles, you had other people's agendas, you lived other people's days, so it wasn't your day. It wasn't your success. So when you hit the hay at night, you toss and turn because it doesn't sit right. Good tired, ironically enough, can be a day that you lost. But you fought the good fight, you lived your day, you acted on your dreams and when the day ends can lie down and say "take me away." And you sleep the sleep of the just.' "
Page Index


On The Food Line
Author: Harry Chapin

Publication: Food Monitor
Date: September 1977 -
reprinted in the September / October 1981 issue of the publication.

Partners
Bill Ayres refers to himself as Harry's "friend and partner." The enterprise in which they were partners was ending world hunger. Collaboration with Bill launched Harry's career as a hunger activist. Together they launched World Hunger Year in 1975.
The first contact came in 1973 through Tom Chapin. After enjoying his stint as a guest on the ABC radio network show Bill hosted, Tom suggested a future guest. "You should meet my brother Harry. He loves to talk." That, Bill now says, was the understatement of the century. Bill called Harry and asked him to be on the show. The first meeting was classic Harry Chapin. Bill was there; Harry never showed. A new date was crammed into the crowded schedule, the show went well. Discovering that Bill also lived on Long Island, Harry invited him over for dinner with Sandy and the kids. They got together again several times. After one very good meal, Bill suggested that they organize a benefit concert, like the concert for Bangladesh, except this time for Africa.
Their attempts to arrange the concert were a series of misadventures. A good meeting with Bradford Morse, then a United Nations Under-Secretary- General, ended in confusion and embarrassment when Morse asked which of them could co-ordinate all the details. Of course, neither could. So, through the U.S. representative to the UN, John Scali, they were introduced to the people who put together the January 1973 Nixon inaugural celebration. These impresarios planned a reunion of the Beatles as the main attraction. Of course that never happened, nor did the concert.
After this failure, they were, as Harry remembers it, "disappointed but undaunted." They went on studying and proselytizing. Early in 1975, they founded World Hunger Year to give some continuity to their work. In the first issue of Food Monitor (published in September 1977), Harry recalled the beginnings of his involvement.

HARRY CHAPIN: 1977
Hunger - from our early years, we all heard about the starving people in China - "Eat your soup, there are people starving out there." Guilt, right from the beginning. And guilt is something we soon learn to lose behind a screen of unconsciousness.
Somehow, in the following years, the hunger question did indeed get lost among other concerns, things that we thought were more important or closer to home. Segregation down South - we didn't know then in our smugness up North that the race problem was in all of us who are white. Then the Draft - it coalesced a whole generation around what was happening in Vietnam and the Environment - it was the hot thing for an Earth Day or two.
Of course, there were moments when something specific on hunger would surface. Sometime around Woodstock summer I read a New York Times article on Calcutta. It talked about that troubled place as a metaphor for the End of the City and of our Civilization as a whole - people living in the streets, the water supply and the sewer system being one and the same, and finally the wagons that came every morning to collect bodies from the curbs. Hunger again, and the guilt reawakened. Especially since I was seeing in the mirror the first signs of what I would call in a poem, "Time's thickening collar slipping around my waist." This was a first salvo signalling the beginning of a war with calories that comes with Middle Class American Adulthood.
But as the 60s came to a close we started hearing about the Green Revolution. Technology once again to the rescue. We were off the hook. Time would surely bring the solution to the hunger problem. Oh yes, the Biafra situation got us worked up for a time, as did Bangladesh, but these were just temporary aberrations. Then, in 1973, word of the sub-Sahara drought put hunger on a few front pages. Eventually it was 'in' for about half a year. The Energy Crisis, the Great Russian Grain Robbery, and then the World Food Conference.
I myself plugged in about then through relatively unspectacular events. I had been doing a series of benefits, perhaps suffering more than the usual American "liberal guilt" because my career was going well. It was suddenly bringing in more money than I had ever conceived of making.
Despite being a musician, I had always been a relatively verbal sort. When asked to do interviews, I would always drop in at least a few "heavy" cocktail-type comments about the state of the world. One particular session, recording a public service program with Bill Ayres, a completely down-to-earth practitioner of the religious arts, brought about a subsequent get-together to discuss some common concerns.
Bill, who reaches over six million people a week with his various programs, is well-informed in many areas because of his varied interests and regular exposure to guests on his shows. He was already quite "in" for knowledgeable about the scope of the hunger problem in Africa and he concluded our talk with the suggestion that, "It is time for another Bangladesh for Africa this time." I responded with the obvious quibble that I was not even close to being George Harrison, but Bill, in his gently deadly way, zapped me for this too-glib response. So, we resolved to see what one Catholic priest, with a background in media, and one third-class rock singer/songwriter could do to help an obviously tragic situation.
Thus commenced a learning process that has brought us up to this very day, and promises to continue for the rest of our lives. With our first thoughts about doing benefit concerts, we realized we had to learn much more about the problem and about the organizations that attempt to deal with it. We didn't know that we would eventually have to come to terms with great gaps in the overall effort.
We started with an abortive attempt to do a series of benefit concerts for the United Nations across the country. At this early time we were thoroughly entrenched in what could be called 'the charity phase' of the learning process. Besides all the immense logistical problems of setting up these kinds of benefits, we eventually came up against a depressing fact: even if we did manage to arrange one benefit concert for virtually every night of the year 1974, and fantasizing that each one would be successful enough to bring in the two million dollars that the original Bangladesh concert did, even after a year's time it would add up to 730 million dollars, or in cold, practical terms, only one dollar per year for each person on this planet who is severely hungry.
Disappointed but undaunted, Bill and I pressed on, convening a series of meetings at my house involving a wide range of people from every walk of life interested in discussing what we could do together. The only conclusion that we ruled out before we began was that, as individuals we were helpless to have an effect. We essentially went through a cram course in development, having the first awareness of the political aspects of hunger. We heard serious questions raised as to whether the vast majority of the present hunger 'solutions' were counter-productive. We also heard the inevitable 'realists' propounding the 'Triage-Lifeboat Thesis,' claiming that natural selection was at work and that there were 'Basketcase Countries' that should be allowed to perish for the ultimate health of the whole planet.
In the process of learning the fallacies of these arguments we realized that, once again, hunger had become the silent problem. Maximum visibility to the hunger issue was imperative. There needed to be free, wide-ranging, and regular discussion of facts, causes, and potential solutions. We had seen the six-month 'hot' period for hunger peter-out by the beginning of 1975. Here was a problem that in the best of years still afflicted one eighth of the world's population, and in terms of the major news media, it was again a non-issue.
I personally believe that the Vietnam War ended when American TV watchers each night saw on their seven o'clock news the faces of Americans who were fighting and dying in that distant country, when they heard mother after mother speak of her loss, and then listened to General after General go through the same ritualistic rationales of futility and come up with new lies to hide the indefensible.
Bill and I founded World Hunger Year (WHY) in March of 1970 when we came to the conclusion that the greatest need was to give constant and consistent exposure to the hunger problem. We saw the need to start the kind of organization whose express purpose was not to provide relief or development funds but to increase the visibility of what is, and should be, perceived as humankind's greatest crisis. As an important corollary to that goal, we wished to articulate a positive tone to combat the more usual 'guilt- mixed- in- with- breast- beating- seasoned- with- hopelessness' that we so often pass off as our highly-developed social consciousness.
Late in 1975 we came into professional contact with people who embodied just that tone. With a fortuitousness that often does occur when one becomes truly committed, we met two Hunger Movement stalwarts who were changing people's perception of the problem. Frances Moore Lappe and Joe Collins had been on the front lines of the Food Movement for many years, despite their relatively young ages. Frances' book - Diet for a Small Planet - served as the consciousness-raising beginning to a viable Food Movement. Dr. Joe's research with Richard Barnet and Jacques Chonchol had brought much needed documentation to the economic and political causes of hunger.
Together, they had founded the Institute for Food and Development Policy. In the painstaking process of preparing a major new work on hunger, they have come up with what to me is the key for all of us. Their insights will allow us at last to get beyond the guilt, to get beyond the myths and misconceptions that have built up around this all-pervasive issue. They had combined an unprecedented depth and quality of research to show in Food First that there are things that all of us can do, that by understanding the true causes of hunger we can indeed remove the fear and paralysis that lock us into inaction. Moreover, they show that the process itself of learning and coping with food questions can bring us into intimate contact with those factors that control our world.
It may be strange to be hearing from someone that he is excited about tackling a problem of such magnitude. But all of us who are in the process of joining together in that human community of interest called the Hunger Movement are involved in a most exciting endeavor. The process is one of finding that we need not be a tiny, helpless speck awash in the tears of humanity. It is one of finding that we are human beings who need to, and can have an effect on our own destinies and the lives of others. At a time when so many of us are suffering from a malaise of hopelessness or ineffectuality this is indeed an exciting prospect.
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