Harry Chapin, of Taxi” and “Cat’s in the Cradle” fame, was one of the greatest singer-songwriters, social activists, humanitarians, and philanthropists to live.
He was well known for “playing one night for me, one night for the other guy.”
After his life was tragically cut short in 1981 at the age of 38, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1987. The Gold Medal is awarded to persons “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement” (other recipients have included Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela).
Chapin was particularly committed to the issues of hunger and the performing arts.
He co-founded World Hunger Year, a national organization that focuses on grass-roots solutions to eliminate hunger. He also founded Long Island Cares, a food bank that gives 2.8 million pounds of food a year to 300,000 people.
Chapin was just as zealous in his support of the arts. “For him, the arts were not a luxury but the key to articulating people’s ideals, dreams and values — a necessary part of democracy,” according to his daughter Jen.
It was actually my future wife Mary who introduced me to the music of Harry back in the late 1970s. In fact, one of our first dates was to see Harry in concert (our first date was to see Boz Scaggs). I remember Mary waiting in line after the concert for about 30 minutes for the chance to get a kiss from Harry, in exchange for a $5 contribution to fight world hunger. (By the way, that’s a tough act to follow.)
A tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall in 1987 to honor Harry and to present the Congressional Gold Medal to his son Joshua. Among the performers were Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen sang Harry’s song “Remember When the Music Died“, and it is one of my favorite performances by Bruce. As he is prone to do, Bruce paused in the middle of the song to share his thoughts about the song and Harry with the audience.
Bruce’s best line is “So Do Something, and May His Song Be Sung.” (for those of you want to skip right to that part, it happens at the 6:00 minute mark of the above video).
I can’t think of a better tribute you could offer to Harry; encouraging others to do something in his honor, and making an appeal that his music and message be carried on.
I also can’t imagine what our world would be like if Harry were still alive, and fighting the good fight. I do know that it would be a kinder, more generous, and more committed world.
One of my favorite Harry Chapin songs is “Story of a Life”, and two lines from it seem quite prophetic:
“And somewhere on your path to glory
You will write your story of a life”
And while it was way too brief, Harry certainly wrote a story of a life that was full of meaning and a burning desire to help those less fortunate.
I hope we can all be so lucky to write such a story.
If you want to read some more about Harry, here is a great story from the New York Times.