Harry Chapin, active in the music business for just a decade before he died at 38, left behind a legacy that continues 30 years after his death. As with his best-known hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” he crafted songs that spoke to issues many of us have lived.
Those familiar with the depths of Chapin’s catalogue and those looking to learn more about his music will enjoy next weekend’s Tribute to Harry Chapin, the season finale of the Folk Night at the Registry series.
It was 40 years ago, in June 1971, that Chapin formed his band. And almost 30 years, in July 1981, that he died, making for a bittersweet celebration of anniversaries, notes Jack Cole, who leads the Old Chestnuts Song Circle and organizes the Folk Night series.
Prolific, Chapin produced more than a recording for every year he was active, along with keeping a hectic touring schedule, playing 200 to 250 shows annually. Beyond that, he was an advocate for good causes, with half of his concerts earmarked for charities. He established the World Hunger Year charity, and raised more than $3 million in six years. He lobbied for the creation of a President’s Commission on World Hunger, and actively served on it. In 1987 Chapin was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honour given by the U.S. Congress.
When he died on a New York highway – in a collision that was likely preceded by a heart attack – he was on his way to play in a free concert. The hectic pace may have played a part in his early demise.
“He really worked hard for what he believed in.
He did the things he said he was going to do,” said Cole, noting Chapin was the only member of the President’s Commission on World Hunger to attend every meeting, despite the fact he was often on the road far from home. “When you talk about energy, Harry had it.”
Chapin’s humanitarianism is on display in his songs, which tell stories about real lives and issues.
“He took ordinary people and made stories about them. When you listen to the words, it’s really something that people can relate to,” he said. “Harry wrote little gems, a lot like Stan Rogers.”
Stories such as the father-son relationship in “Cat’s in the Cradle” and the former lovers in “Taxi” are themes that touched listeners, generating gold records. But there are many such tales in Chapin’s catalogue. Cole’s own favourite? “Mr. Tanner,” about a dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio who makes his singing debut in New York City and gets slammed by the critics, never to sing in public again.
“It’s a powerful, heartbreaking story,” noted Cole, who’ll be performing that tune, one of about 20 on the set list, selected after a tough paring-down process.
He’s one of three singers, because one is not enough to try to do justice to Chapin, he added. The two others that will share the duties are Michael Kelly Cavan and Chris Lobsinger. Recreating the sound of
Chapin’s band will be Dan Patterson (bass guitar), Elaine Finnie (cello) and Andy Tulloch (keyboards).
The Tribute to Harry Chapin is on stage June 17 and 18 at 8 p.m at the Registry Theatre, 122 Frederick St., Kitchener. Tickets are $15 ($17 at the door), available at the Centre in the Square box office by calling 578-1570 or toll free 1-800-265-8977 or online at www.centre-square.com. For more information, check out www.folknight.ca. In keeping with Chapin’s own support for good causes, all proceeds from these shows will be divided between The Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Mennonite Central Committee’s programs to reduce world hunger.