By: Andrea Nay
There are good storytellers. There are great storytellers. Harry Chapin may have been the best of them all.
Harry died when I was three, victim of a simultaneous car accident and heart attack at age 38. My parents saw him several times in concert, and I grew up listening to ‘Harry songs’ on every long car trip. They ranged from the tear-jerking “Mr. Tanner” to the sing-along-song “30,000 Pounds of Bananas.” I kind of liked the songs when I was 10 or 12, but it took growing up, living alone, experiencing love and loss, and forming my own world view before I really appreciated what Harry was all about.
Whenever I ask friends my age whether they know of Harry, they tend to answer with something vague like, “Is he the guy who sang the ‘Run for the Roses’”? Nope, sorry. That’s Dan Fogelberg, but thanks for playing.
Harry looked a little and talked on stage much like John Mayer, took a stand like Bruce Springsteen and Bono, and marketed like Dave Matthews. He wasn’t about topping radio charts, though he had a few hits which may sound familiar (“Cat’s in the Cradle,” “W.O.L.D.,” and “Taxi”). Instead, he wrote ballads and traveled through college campuses singing them.
His were long story songs, like “The Mayor of Candor” which clocks in at nine minutes. He even had two-parters. Not only could he not tell a tale like “Taxi” in a radio-friendly time frame, he needed a second song called “Sequel” to finish the plot.
Appreciating Harry requires actually paying attention to the lyrics. Harry’s music isn’t for blaring at the pool. It’s for contemplating in the dark at 3:00 a.m. with your favorite cup of chai. Or, in the car, three hours into an all-night drive.
Said a UK critic in 1977: Harry “is predicably big in the States with moderately hip, middle class, liberal-thinking, sort of sensitive and aware 25-35 year olds.” Three decades later, he still should be.
Take a hint. Go directly to iTunes or YouTube. Search “Old College Avenue” and “A Better Place.” Weep. Search “Taxi” and “Sequel.” Marvel. Search “I Miss America.” Laugh. Then, teach them to your children. They’ll thank you … when they’re old enough to finally get it.
Photo © Cindy Funk, Creative Commons