Amid the tangled, fiery wreckage of a car on the Long Island Expressway, the life of a gifted musician came to an end 30 summers ago.
But the musical legacy of Harry Chapin – a canon of work including the lament to misspent fatherhood Cat’s in the Cradle – lives on through the unending devotion of his fans.
“Everyone has a story,” Jen Chapin, the late singer’s daughter told Rock Cellar Magazine from her home in Brooklyn, NY.
Each story, she says, provides a glimpse of the charisma and humility she remembers in her father: “(People say) he played for hours and kissed their wife after the show. He waited until every last person had their T-shirts signed. People remember him so vividly and fondly. It really keeps him alive for me – I’m very fortunate that way.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of her father’s death on July 16 2011, Jen Chapin will perform a free outdoor benefit concert in her hometown of Huntington, NY, alongside Tom Chapin, Steve Chapin, The Chapin Sisters, and friends.
“We’ll be performing on a stage that was actually renamed for him — The Chapin Rainbow Stage. It’s sponsored by Long Island Cares, which is one of the organizations that my dad founded, serving immediate food needs in Long Island, which is where I grew up.”
Numerous tribute concerts and other events celebrating Chapin’s memory are happening across North America this year.
“There’s a campaign under way to get a Harry Chapin postal stamp,” said Jen. “There is also a young journalist based in Boston by the name of Ira Kantor who has been chipping away at what ultimately, he hopes, will be a full-length biography.”
The way people remember Harry is to bring his work forward and the ongoing quest for economic justice. Anniversaries like these, it’s not so much about looking back, but rather honoring him by working towards a better future for our children, which was his focal point — Jen Chapin, Harry Chapin’s daughter
Jen too is a committed social activist and longtime member of WHY (World Hunger Year), an organization her father co-founded. She is also a singer-songwriter, with her own brand of jazz-tinged folk songs that search for community and shared meaning.
Not surprising, she credits her father as her biggest influence. “I think his natural approach to performing has had the greatest impact on me. No smoke and lights, just being real.”
Howie Fields, Harry Chapin’s drummer from 1975-1981, believes few performers have ever crafted as engaging a live show as Chapin.
“Harry had such a great gift for creating gorgeous melodies, well-crafted and clever chords, hauntingly beautiful lyrics and riveting musical stories.
“However, I’ve always thought it was the characters that he would create and write about that captured his audience: Mr. Tanner, I Wanna Learn a Love Song, A Better Place to Be. These characters were always or often underdogs faced with impossible life decisions to make, but, one way or another, seemed to rise above their dilemma or at least find a way to live with it.”
Jen Chapin, who was only 10 years old when her father died, fondly remembers being on the road with her dad:
“I adored him and enjoyed the travels, we always had him around – and since, we’ve always had people honoring him. I have the privilege of having him not really be gone, in a sense. The personal interaction with him is gone, but in my dad’s case, there are generations of people who still love and remember him. And of course, we’ll always have the music.”
Harry Chapin live – “W.O.L.D.”
While Jen has many favorite songs from her father’s catalogue, one in particular holds a special place in her heart: “I have recorded I Wonder What Would Happen To This World.” It’s very resonant with his life and that sense of being driven to live a life of meaning and engagement with the world. An excerpt from the lyrics is on his gravestone.”
On stage, Harry Chapin would frequently try to coax Jen and her younger brother onstage. “I would often refuse. I was a shy girl, though my mother says I explained: ‘I’ll be on stage when it’s my own stage.'”
Today, Jen Chapin indeed has her own stage. She and her husband Stephan Crump (acoustic bass), along with Jamie Fox (electric guitar) will be performing a string of dates across the U.S. and Eastern Canada this summer. Often, Jen and Stephan’s young children, Maceo and Van Crump, accompany them on tour, much to the delight of fans – especially those who remember Harry Chapin.
“Maceo has the little cleft (on his chin) that Harry had,” said Jen. “And somebody told him, ‘It’s like your grandpa came down and kissed you on the chin.'”
It’s a beautiful sentiment – that Harry Chapin’s likeness transcends generations, just like his music. “The last family concert we did – we do several of them a year – Maceo was on stage at the end of the show, mouthing the words to Circle. It was powerful.”
Jen often shows her kids footage of their grandfather performing – footage that is increasingly easy to find thanks to YouTube and the like.
“I recently said to my mom, ‘Imagine daddy with all the social networking available today – he would have been all over that! It would have been just what he was looking for, because that’s really what he was all about, connecting with people and trying to make this world a better place.”
Even after his premature death, Chapin continued to make the world a better place through the long term benefits of the more than $3 million he donated to charity in the last six years of his life.
Chapin’s epitaph – his own words – exemplify the man he was and the legend he remains: “Now 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.”