Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Many-Talented Troubadour: Remembering Harry Chapin


"Who was Harry Chapin?" some readers may ask. Unfortunately, a whole generation has grown up never hearing his music, and he is remembered today largely by baby-boomers. Musician. Singer. Poet. Songwriter. Recording artist. Filmmaker. Political activist. Hunger fighter. Dreamer. Doer. Harry Chapin was all of these, and more.

Critics scorned him and his music--yet his fans loved him and his albums sold in the millions. He performed between 200 and 300 concerts each year--yet he found time to stalk the halls of Congress in the fight against hunger. His film Legendary Champions was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969--yet few have ever seen this 77-minute film. He only briefly visited Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., yet for three decades every year on the third Sunday in October in this little village hundreds run or walk in his memory to fight hunger.

Birth and Early Life
Harry Chapin's short life was too full of motion and action to be captured in a mere article. The purpose here is to touch on the high points of his all-too-short life and to correct many errors in the sparse biographic material available.

Harry Forster Chapin was born in New York City's Sloan Hospital for Women on West 168th Street in Washington Heights. For fans, his birthday is easy to remember: December 7, 1942, exactly one year after Pearl Harbor. Young Harry would spend the first eleven years of his life in an apartment in a small 19th-century house at 353 West 11th Street, a stone's throw from the Hudson River docks and the freight tracks of the New York Central Railroad.

Harry's father, Jim Chapin, was a peripatetic orchestra drummer in the heady big-band era and was seldom at home to be a father to his children. Despite published assertions that he played with the Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, these statements are not true, according to his former wife. An accomplished drummer, he simply never made it to the "big time."

Harry's mother, 20-year-old Elspeth Burke, married 21-year-old Jim Chapin in 1940. At the time of Harry's birth, the couple had one son, James, 13 months old. After Harry, two other sons, Tom and Steve, would be born. Jim was drafted in 1943 and assigned to the Army Air Corps, where his talents were put to use in an Air Corps band. Moving from base to base put even more strains on the marriage. The couple drifted apart and legally separated in 1948. Harry was six years old.

Toward the end of 1950, Harry's mother took a job in Manhattan as editorial secretary at the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. To replace an earlier publication, The New Movies, which had ceased publication in 1949, the Board launched a new magazine, Films in Review. Named as its editor was Henry Hart, a man Elspeth Chapin would marry.

Henry Gideon Hart IV was descended from John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey. After his father died, young Henry became a reporter on the Philadelphia Record. In 1934, he wrote The Great One, subtitled A Novel of American Life, a satirical portrait of the career of a Philadelphia political boss. Reviewers of Hart's novel noted a close parallel with the career of a notorious but unidentified Washington politician from Pennsylvania.

As the Great Depression dragged on, Hart became attracted to the Communist Party and was active in the American Writer's Congress, a Communist front organization. When Hitler and Stalin signed a non-aggression pact in 1940, following in the footsteps of Whittaker Chambers, he broke with the Communist Party and became an ultraconservative almost overnight. Chambers had joined Time magazine; Henry Hart found work at another of Henry Luce's publications, Fortune.

In 1952, Elspeth Chapin and Henry Hart were married, and he moved into the cramped Chapin apartment on West 11th Street. Seventeen years older than his wife, at 49 Hart was totally unprepared for the role of stepfather to the four free-spirited Chapin boys. He saw them as undisciplined--particularly Harry--and became determined to convert them into young gentlemen. For the next seven years, he would make their lives uncomfortable. Infraction of his old-fashioned rules of behavior usually resulted in punishment. Harry was outspoken and often challenged his stepfather.

In 1954, the family moved to a four-story house at 45A Hicks Street in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in northern Brooklyn Heights. Their surroundings changed, but their stepfather's rigidity did not. Release came for the Chapin boys each summer in Andover, N.J., where their maternal grandfather, esteemed philosopher, literary critic, and poet Kenneth Burke, and his wife had a large farm on which several houses sprawled.

This was old-fashioned country living, for the farm lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and the boys loved it. Also occasionally spending time at the Andover farm was the Chapin boys' paternal grandfather, known as "Big Jim," James Ormsbee Chapin and his wife. He was a nationally known painter whose works now hang in many museums and in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

School Days
After the move to Brooklyn, Henry and older brother James continued to attend school in Manhattan, commuting by subway. Harry then enrolled in Brooklyn Technical High School, an all-male school specializing in math and science. In Brooklyn Heights, Harry met Lee Hays, bass singer with the folk-singing group The Weavers. Hays would later live in Croton. Harry and his brothers Tom and Steve had become interested in folk singing and began to collect records. They also taught themselves to play the guitar.

After graduation from high school in 1960, Harry applied for admission to two schools: the recently created U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. With some urging by his stepfather, Harry decided to accept a competitive appointment by U.S. Representative Francis E. Dorn, of Brooklyn's 12th District. It turned out to be a mistake. Harry was totally unprepared for the cruel hazing that was part of cadets' introduction to the highly structured environment of military life. The Chapin children had been taught by their mother to look out for the smaller and weaker members of the family. The treatment Harry and other new cadets received went against these values, and he wanted no part of it.

When he asked for permission to resign his appointment, faculty members branded him a "quitter," and fellow cadets hazed him unmercifully. The Academy, established in 1954, had only seen its first senior class graduate the year before Harry arrived. Unlike cadets and midshipmen at older academies at West Point and Annapolis, senior cadets at the Air Force Academy had not yet mellowed in their treatment of new cadets.

Harry returned home in September and successfully revived his scholarship at Cornell's prestigious School of Architecture. Again, he became disenchanted--this time with the intricate detail of the subject and the grind of college study. By the middle of his sophomore year, his grades were so low that his scholarship was terminated, and he returned to New York City.

Through his movie director uncle, Richard Leacock, who had married his mother’s sister, he got a job with a documentary filmmaker in the city. After a rigorous apprenticeship, Harry exhibited a talent for film editing and quickly learned how to tell a story in film.

In the meantime, Harry and two of his brothers began giving folksong performances locally. Branching out to clubs in Greenwich Village and Soho, they got a chance to record a 1966 album for Rock-Land Records, a short-lived subsidiary of Music Minus One Records. Harry and Tom each played guitar and Steve played standup bass. The album contained 14 songs, four of which were written by Harry: "Stars Tangled in Her Hair," "Someone Keeps Calling My Name," "When Did You Find Time to Breathe?" and "Blood River." Although a collector's item today, the album was a commercial failure. Despite the talent exhibited in the album, interest in folk music had already peaked and was in decline.

Harry's storytelling ability came in handy when he began working for producer William Cayton, who specialized in boxing films. Harry took fifty years of film clips of fighters like James J. Jeffries, Theodore Roosevelt (yes, the President was a boxer in his youth), Georges Carpentier, Jess Willard, Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey, and turned them into a cohesive story. Titled Legendary Champions and intended to be the first part of a boxing trilogy (the other two parts were never made), the 1968 film was nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary feature category in 1969, but failed to win. However, it won gold prizes as best documentary at the New York and Atlanta film festivals.

Harry edited Peter Gimbel's fascinating 1971 film about great white sharks, Blue Water, White Death, which had original music by brother Tom Chapin. Turnabout was fair play: Tom Chapin had been host of a well-remembered 1970 Saturday morning TV series, Make a Wish, with original music by Harry Chapin. The 1973 film She Lives featured Harry's music. Three years later he wrote the theme song for the short-lived TV series Ball Four, based on Jim Bouton's best-selling book of the same name.

Harry's songs were featured in a 1980 made-for-TV movie, Mother and Daughter: The Loving War, starring Tuesday Weld and Croton's own Kathleen Beller. Harry had one brief turn as an actor in this story of a divorcee's struggle to raise a daughter. A young woman (Tuesday Weld) turns to her mother (Frances Sternhagen) for help when her teenage daughter (Beller) becomes rebellious--just as she did 29 years earlier. In the final scene, playing the part of the mother's boyfriend, Harry greets Weld at the airport with three words, "Welcome back, beautiful" and a welcoming kiss. Harry's music was also featured in a 1980 movie Cutting Loose, most notable for marking Saturday Nght Live actress Joan Cusack's first big-screen role.

Next, Harry Chapin met and fell in love with Susan Gaston Cashmore, the wife of James Cashmore, son of Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore. Unhappily married to an abusive and alcoholic husband, she obtained a divorce and married Harry. In an ironic replay of his own youth, he now found himself in 1968 the stepfather to three children.

Starting in 1972, Harry Chapin made eleven albums--three were "double albums"--in eight years before his untimely death, and many single records. He was a troubadour in the medieval sense of the word, a rover with a guitar who played 200 to 300 concerts a year, well over half of them to raise money for charitable causes. Although his earnings totaled in the millions, he donated so much of his money to charity that he was often broke.

Other singers performed "story songs" that occasionally became hits. But Harry's repertoire was almost exclusively story songs wrenched from his own bittersweet experiences. They revolved around the angst of the human condition, loneliness, unrequited love, and the ups and downs of relationships. His poignant songs reflect the growing self-awareness of a sensitive singer-songwriter who came to know that we must give something back to life.

Chapin fans insist that Harry Chapin was at his best in a live concert, where he could absorb energy from his enthusiastic audiences. For that reason, his double album Greatest Stories Live is still one of his most popular. Other sought-after albums include Legends of the Lost and Found, The Bottom Line Encore Collection, Verities and Balderdash, and Dance Band on the Titanic.

Many popular singers mined Harry's songs for hits. Judy Collins, Johnny Cash and Ricky Skaggs have recorded "Cat’s in the Cradle." "Taxi" was a favorite of another story-singer, Mandy Patinkin. Understandably, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, two of Harry’s friends, frequently played "Circle." Pat Benatar recorded "Shooting Star."

In 1975, Harry self-published a book of poems entitled Looking . . . Seeing. Word-of-mouth publicity made it so popular that the publishing house of T.Y. Crowell bought the rights and published it as a trade paperback. It contains many of the lyrics of his songs.

Political Activist
Harry Chapin had always rebelled against what he called "event psychosis"--the idea that a major concert or benefit or other event would magically solve problems through good will. In 1973, Harry Chapin met Father Bill Ayres, a Roman Catholic priest from Rockville Center, Long Island, who had a national rock and religion radio show on the ABC network. It was to change Harry's life.

At about this time, Harry and Bill came to Croton-on-Hudson on a winter afternoon to visit Frances Moore Lappé, author of the book Diet for a Small Planet, which offered a vegetarian solution to the problem of world hunger. It started to snow during their visit. Bill Ayres recalls the completely fearless yet characteristic way Harry made his way down a snow-covered slope while others were negotiating it with caution. When Harry saw that they were having trouble, he made his way up again and assisted the others in their descent. This brief visit, the only time Harry spent in Croton, later sparked local interest in starting the Run Against Hunger staged each October in Croton.

Two years later, Bill Ayres and Harry Chapin formed World Hunger Year (WHY), a nonprofit educational organization funded largely by benefits given by Harry Chapin. Later that year, on Thanksgiving Day, the two took over WNEW-FM in New York for a 24-hour commercial-free Hungerthon featuring celebrities, politicians and experts on hunger and poverty.

Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont encouraged Harry to buttonhole key senators and representatives for government action on hunger. Harry began spending several days a week in Washington, often flying there after concerts and catching a few hours' sleep on the plane. His goal was the establishment of a presidential commission to study the twin problems of hunger and poverty. On February 3, 1978, Harry achieved what others had predicted would be impossible. After flying through a blinding snowstorm from Buffalo to Washington in a chartered jet, he sat across from President Jimmy Carter and presented his case. "I think it's a good idea," a convinced Jimmy Carter said. "Let's go with it." Harry had accomplished the impossible.

Harry’s Last Day
Thursday, July 16, 1981, dawned hot and muggy in the Northeast. In his Huntington, Long Island, home, it was to be a busy day for Harry Chapin. He had some morning phone calls to make, followed by business appointments to keep in New York City. That evening he was scheduled for a free concert in Nassau County's Eisenhower Park in East Meadow.

Although his driver's license had been revoked months before for repeated traffic violations, he got into his blue 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit and buckled his seatbelt. First, he stopped at a local delicatessen for a container of coffee before heading east on the busy Long Island Expressway toward Manhattan. Driving in the left lane near Exit 40 in Jericho, for some reason at 12:27 p.m. he turned on his emergency flashers and attempted to get off the highway and onto the grassy shoulder. Harry slowed and tried to move into the center lane, nearly colliding with another automobile. Again attempting to move into the center lane, he swerved into the path of a fast-approaching flatbed trailer truck owned by the Rickel Home Center of Paramus, N.J.

Unable to avoid the smaller car, the truck hit the rear of the Volkswagen and knocked it forward several hundred yards and onto the shoulder of the highway. Passing motorists stopped and with the truck driver extricated Harry, alive and moaning, from the wreckage. A police helicopter airlifted him to the Nassau County Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 1:07 p.m. The 30,000 fans gathered in Eisenhower Park that evening greeted the announcement of the concert's cancellation with stunned disbelief.

Condolences poured in from Washington, the music world, charitable organizations for which he had so generously raised money, and ordinary people everywhere in America who only knew Harry through his songs. In 1986, resolution H.R. 1207 was introduced in Congress. Sponsored in the House by Representatives Downey and Mrazek and in the Senate by Senators Dorgan and Jeffords, its purpose was to award the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to Harry in recognition of his life and work. The medal was presented to his family at a memorable tribute concert held in Carnegie Hall on what would have been Harry's 45th birthday in 1987.

Gone from our midst before reaching the age of 39, Harry Chapin, the bright and shining shooting star of the 70's, is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery in Suffolk County. His grave is marked by a large rough boulder from the family farm in Andover, N.J., one on which Harry played as a child. Chiseled into the stone are his name and birth and death years, followed by: "Oh, if a man tried to take his time on earth and prove before he died what one man's life is worth, I wonder what would happen to this world." Appropriately, these lines are from a Harry Chapin song.

Editor's Note: The annual Harry Chapin Memorial Run Against Hunger will take place in Croton-on-Huson, N.Y., Sunday, October 21, 2012.

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