Thursday, December 08, 2005


Someone would have to be living in a cave, one without wireless net access of course, to not know that today was the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's death. I've always loved The Beatles, not so much Lennon on his own, but he was undoubtedly one of the premiere musical talents of our (my) age. That said, I'll leave it to others to tell his story.

A few months from now will also mark the 25th anniversary of the death of another wonderful musician/storyteller and a great human being who was cut short in his prime. I loved Harry Chapin. But July 16, 2006 will probably come and go without much notice, so I'll commemorate him now.

From a Rolling Stone obituary, September 3, 1981, "Harry Chapin: 1942-1981":

Harry Chapin often described himself as a "third-rate folk singer," and judging from most of the reviews he received in these pages and elsewhere, he wasn't only kidding. Yet Harry Chapin was something more than that. For many who knew him, he was a legitimate hero, not so much for his music as for his consistent and conscientious willingness to fight the right battles, to stand up for a just cause, no matter how hopeless.

When his friends and political associates -- from Mary Rogol and Bill Ayres of World Hunger Year to Ralph Nader and Representative Tom Downey -- spoke of Chapin after his death in an auto accident on the Long Island Expressway July 16th, the word they all used was *fearless*. "It was the one quality of Harry's that I admired most," said Rogol. "Harry was never afraid. Not just physically. Where most people feared embarrassment, being laughed at or rejected, Harry just went right ahead. He just wanted to know what was right and what was the best way to accomplish it. That's real courage."

As Chapin was the first to acknowledge, such bravery isn't cool, for it lacks the necessary arm's-length distance from the world and its problems. And it was that lack of cool that gave Chapin his negative image. It always gnawed at him that he never got particularly good reviews. He made jokes about what the critics had to say: that he was preachy and didactic, a simplistic and woeful singer, a careless craftsman in the studio, emotionally overwrought onstage. I still can't see that these criticisms were wrong, but I know they weren't entirely correct, either.

Harry Chapin's function in the music world was not to be cool. He was *supposed* to be awkward and overtly unhip; he was *supposed* to stand in contrast to the glibness and callousness of many of his peers. If the ungainly accents and sputtering diction of some of Chapin's songs can't kill their power, that is because more important things than simple aesthetics are at work in those tunes, and because Chapin wasn't working in a pop context of craftsmanship and cool but from the folk-music traditions of the American left.
[Senator Patrick] Leahy's eulogy was well written and moving, but what I'll always recall was what he said before he read it: "You know, I think I've shed more tears in the last few days than at any other time in my adult life."

On the floor of Congress, the reaction was very similar. No other singer -- not Bing Crosby, nor Elvis Presley, nor John Lennon -- has ever been so widely honored by the nation's legislators. Nine senators and thirty congressmen paid tribute to Harry Chapin on the floor, and not all of them were the kind of liberal Democrats on whose behalf Harry had campaigned so long and hard last fall. No less a conservative than Senator Robert Dole of Kansas, not exactly known for his political generosity of spirit, called Chapin "a liberal, and a liberal in the best sense of the word. He possessed a spirit of generosity and optimism that carried him through his various commitments with a great sense of seriousness and purpose... What he was really committed to was decency and dignity."


Harry was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1987 for his tireless work on social issues, most notably world hunger. He was a key player in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977.

As I've been writing this for the last hour or so, I've been listening continuously to "Taxi", Harry's first big hit from 1972. Some songs you just can't get tired of listening to... "Taxi" is one of them. Listen to it here: Windows Media or Real Audio.

Oh, I've got something inside me
To drive a princess blind
There's a wild man, wizard
He's hiding in me, illuminating my mind
Oh, I've got something inside me
Not what my life's about
'Cause I've been letting my outside tide me
Over 'til my time, runs out

"When in doubt, do something"
-Harry Chapin
BTW, Harry would have been 63 yesterday.

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