Each year, there are relentless and varied 50th anniversary stories and celebrations about everything from Classic Rock albums to movies that, in retrospect, signify as milestones. We’ve been reminded again and again that this year is the 50th anniversary of Carole King’s Tapestry and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, along with John Lennon’s Imagine and Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. Ditto idiosyncratic movies as divergent as Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. These 50th anniversaries are seen as cultural signposts.
And that means that next year, in 2022, we’ll be reading new articles offering fresh assessments of Harry Chapin’s one-two punch of a big-time debut, at the age of 30, back in 1972. With his unruly mop of curly hair and omnipresent acoustic guitar, it was clear from the get-go that Chapin was very much a product of the singer-songwriter trend that triumphed in late 1960s and early 1970s.
In different ways, Chapin was in league with the evolving legacies of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Donovan, and others. But he also had a social conscience and activist sensibility that made him kindred spirits with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Janis Ian.
That begs the question: In 1972, at the same time that Don McLean and Dan Fogelberg were vying for the limelight as the new singer-songwriter on the block, just how did Harry Chapin catch on with the masses in such a big way?
The answer can be summed up in one word: Stories. His third album was titled Short Stories, and it’s no accident that later in the 1970s, after a slew of Top 10 singles and non-stop success on tour after tour, Chapin’s double-disc collection of greatest hits was titled Greatest Stories Live.
But first attention must be paid to his remarkable emergence in 1972, with the album Heads & Tales (and its classic single “Taxi”) and Sniper and other Love Songs (with its heartrending long-form story-song “A Better Place to Be”). Two years later, on his 1974 album Verities & Balderdash, Chapin achieved immortality with his wrenching ballad “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the ultimate parent-child tale.
Enter journalist, biographer, and New York cultural commentator Pat Fenton with his new book Searching for Harry Chapin’s America: Remember When the Music (Heliotrope Books). In this unique work mixing biography, lyrical analysis, and road-trip reflections, Pat Fenton reminds us that what truly set Chapin apart from his peers in the music industry was his innate talent for creating extended story-songs, remarkably musical tales, which in earlier eras would have been written out as short fiction.
Throughout the 1970s, many of Chapin’s most beloved lyrics were part and parcel of songs requiring five or ten minutes for performances. “Cat’s in the Cradle” was an oddity in that it naturally emerged as a shorter, radio-friendly lyric perfectly shaped for the Top 40 agenda.
What makes Pat Fenton’s new book a great contribution to our cultural knowledge is that by taking to the road and seeking out the geographical backgrounds and the local color that induced exquisite Chapin songs like “Mr. Tanner,” “Dreams Go By,” “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” (and others), readers are brought along on a mythic journey through purebred Americana.
The great David Amram (gifted musician, composer, lyrical innovator, and Beat Generation keeper of the flame) has declared Pat Fenton’s book “an unforgettable series of journeys.” Fenton traveled far and wide to compare notes with individuals in all walks of life who consider the songs of Harry Chapin to be the soundtrack of their lives. And he also interviewed the surviving children of the tragically-fated troubadour.
It’s often a Baby Boomer question to ask just when, exactly, did the spirit of the 1960s truly end? Usually folks concur that between President Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and the fall of Saigon in 1975 – somewhere in there, the door closed for real on the echoes of the Sixties.
I disagree. Because as long as Chapin was thriving not just as a singer-songwriter but as a world-class humanitarian fundraiser, he kept the spirit of the 1960s alive until his own life was cut short by a tragic auto accident forty years ago this summer. Chapin was killed on July 16, 1981, driving on the Long Island Expressway to yet another benefit gig to support his annual anti-hunger crusade.
More than a dreadful car crash, that accident snuffed out one of the last heroic exemplars of a certain sensibility that insisted that music and art and communal musical gatherings could be about more than concert grosses or gold records. Ironically, Harry Chapin spent most of the 1970s as one of the highest-grossing concert attractions and he was also a chart-topper more than once. But his fondest wish as a man and artist was to do all he could to eradicate hunger. He was adamant in his can-do endeavors.
President Jimmy Carter established the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977 with Chapin as a charter member. Chapin also co-founded an organization called World Hunger Year, now known as WhyHunger, which connects people to nutritious food and resources through more than 8,000 community and grassroots programs.
In the aftermath of his death at age 38, Harry Chapin’s widow Sandy was quoted as saying that “only with slight exaggeration, Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations, and 82 charities. Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people, so he gave it away.”
In fact, more than half of Chapin’s innumerable concerts throughout the 1970s and straight into 1980-81 were benefits. Furthermore, it’s estimated that Chapin donated approximately one third of his paid-for concerts to different charitable causes. The man was an archetype of joyous generosity.
Pat Fenton’s noteworthy book succeeds as a tribute to Harry Chapin’s lyrical integrity, open-hearted sharing, and his profound yearning to make here and now “a better place to be.”
Speaking of places: Guess where Fenton was when he first heard Harry Chapin nearly fifty years ago? In a cab, mesmerized by the narrative content of the song “Taxi.”
Bringing his journalistic skills and his deeply personal memories into collective focus, here is how Fenton starts his Searching for Harry Chapin’s America ~ Remember When the Music: “The first time I ever heard a Happy Chapin song, I was driving an empty New York City yellow cab down Central Park West at midnight in winter – the dark street and doormen hailing cabs in a blur before me, my foot so hard on the pedal that I thought I might fly. This was 1972, when the song ‘Taxi’ first came out, and I could not have been situated more perfectly to hear it on the radio.”
Deftly shifting the focus from himself to Harry Chapin, the following passage finds Fenton stepping back as his main subject shines on: “Once asked by an interviewer to describe his style of music, Chapin said, ‘It’s sort of interesting, because it’s after folk has happened, it’s after rock. It’s a throwback, especially in the longer songs, to an older ballad form . . .’ Harry’s genre can be traced back to the roots of early American folk music, a kind of storytelling through ballad.”
And this distinguished, evocative chronicle by Pat Fenton is the book that he was born to write.
SEARCHING FOR HARRY CHAPIN'S AMERICA: REMEMBER WHEN THE MUSIC is now available from Heliotrope Books.
For more on WhyHunger, visit whyhunger.org or follow @whyhungerpix on Instagram.
Featured image: Harry Chapin in 1980 (C) Elektra Records, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.