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Songwriter Harry Chapin Remembered 30 Years Later

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Harry Chapin & Daughter Jen Chapin

Harry Chapin & Daughter Jen Chapin; 1973. Photo by Tom Chapin, courtesy of Jen Chapin

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.

Jen Chapin. photo: Todd Keueny

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 SongA 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.'”

Jen Chapin, Stephen Crump, Jamie Fox

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.”

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  1. Peter Schroeder on

    It doesn’t seem like thirty years since Harry Chapin passed.
    I attended a few of his shows, and one in particular I will never forget.
    It was a covered bowl shaped amphitheater at Ontario Place in Toronto.
    The stage continuously revolved during the show so that all the audience could see.
    Outside hundreds of people were sitting on the grass enjoying the show.
    It started to rain, really hard.
    Harry stopped the show, got the stage to stop turning and asked the people in the rain to come down to the stage and to sit in the steps out of the weather.
    The show then continued with flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder in a very intimate setting.
    And at the end of the show, we all sang All my life’s a Circle.
    As your story stated, Harry had a way of connecting with people.

    • Kathy Forgnone on

      My husband and I loved and supported everything Harry did. We saw him every chance we could on the West Coast. Harry always “Made” time for you. He’d sit and talk to you like you were an old friend that meant a lot to him.
      The day he left all of us, we cried so hard and long after, but the legacy Harry left is being continued in good faith and hope. Long live his memory and dreams.

  2. D.J. Anderson on

    I was fortunate enough to see Harry perform several times, and the thing that always struck me was that he had a way of performing that made you feel as though he was singing directly to you, no matter how many or how few were in the audience.
    I still recall the last time that I spoke with him, after a concert in Hampton Beach, N.H.. I gave him a donation for WHY, he signed my program, and we talked for a moment or two about the concert, in which he performed for over two hours after flying in from lobbying for hunger relief.
    He was a few minutes late, and the first thing he said when he came out was “Sorry for being late folks, but I’m here and I’m gonna sing my a** off for you tonight.” And that was exactly what he did.
    In retrospect, if I had known that it was the last time I would see him, I think I may have taken a few more moments to properly thank him for music that is still as important today as it was over 30 years ago, which I feel shows just how great a performer he was.
    It has been said that as long as someone is remembered, they never truly die. If that is so, then Harry is truly immortal.

  3. I was just this nobody young 16 year old girl at our local amusement park back in “77”, Rocky Glen or Ghost Town in the Glen as it was known then.I had lost my Mom to breast cancer just 3 years earlier & wasn’t feeling very good about life. Harry Chapin was playing 2 shows that day on the stage of the Red Barn. It was one of my first concerts .The only 2 songs I knew were Cats In the cradle & WOLD. After the first show He was selling items you could buy with a donation for WHY & autographing them ,unfortunatley I spent what money I had to come to the park & see the show so I couldn’t buy anything for him to sign. Later on He was playing minature golf down by the lake ,I guess he saw me & my girl friend watching him, he stopped playing & came over & said hi , I was so tongue tied I couldn’t say anything at first, he ask if we wanted an autograph, but the only thing I had was a white napkin , which he graciously signed & then gave me a kiss. He doesn’t know how special that was for me & after all these years His autograph is still one of my prized possessions.
    He was someone who truley lived what he sang about!! THANK YOU

    • I’m pretty sure I saw you there. My uncle took my cousin and I to the show (although I believe it was ’78.) We saw Mr. Chapin walking nonchalantly along the lake and my Uncle was encouraging us to talk to him, but I was too embarrassed. I remember watching him walk up to a pair of girls and sign a napkin.