Thirty years ago today, we lost a national treasure.
Harry Chapin was killed in an automobile accident on the Long Island Expressway en route to a benefit concert he was scheduled to perform that evening. He was only 38 (which just happens to my age.)
I remember hearing about on the CBS Morning News the following day. What I distinctly remember about that report was that instead of the concert being cancelled, fans brought their guitars and went on stage to play Chapin’s songs. That has always stayed with me. In 2001, I comemorated what happened the day Chapin died with a poem called “A Thousand Guitars & A Cello” which would later appear in my first poetry chapbook, Oysters & The Newborn Child:
When it was announced that you would not perform
The observers and participants continued to arrive
Refusing to be deterred by the bitter storm
Determined to see that the music would survive
A thousand guitars ascended the stage
Accompanied by a single cello
Our stories would fill the blank page
For one night we all stood friend & fellow
In a land where hope is faint
Destiny and fate are still ours to choose
The portrait of ourselves we paint
Challenges us to better fill our shoes
Life will not be about loss and win
When we understand that the circle never ends or begins
I never had the fortune of seeing Chapin perform in concert. However, Neil Steinberg of the Chicago Sun-Times did and tells us that attending a Chapin concert was like attending no other. Could you imagine Lady Gaga’s little monsters demanding to hear “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”?
Chapin typically performed 200 concerts a year – half of which were benefits. As Chapin explained, “I play one night for myself and one night for the other guy.” Most of his philanthropic endeavors revolved around World Hunger Year (now known as WhyHunger), an organization he co-founded in 1975 with Bill Ayres (not to be confused with Bill Ayers.)
When Chapin wasn’t performing in concert or working on his latest album, he could be seen on Capitol Hill lobbying Senators and Congressmen about the issue of world hunger. Although Chapin leaned liberal (before he became famous he worked on one of Allard Lowenstein’s congressional campaigns in New York), he would talk to anybody about addressing world hunger – Democrat or Republican. Well, Chapin made an indelible impression. Then Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole eulogized him on the floor of the Senate. Dole was one of nearly forty Senators and Congressmen paid tribute to Chapin that day. When he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in December 1987 both Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch were on hand to sing Chapin’s praises. Chapin didn’t hate the people who didn’t share his politics. On the contrary, he wanted to persuade conservatives just as much as he wanted to persuade liberals.
Most people remember Chapin for “Cat’s in the Cradle”, his only number one hit which is played on the radio this very day. What people might not realize is that the lyrics were written by his widow, Sandy. But Chapin consistently made great music regardless of whether it ever hit the charts. Just take a listen to “Sunday Morning Sunshine” and you’ll hear what I mean.
O.K., until I started writing this, I had no idea that Chapin, John Denver, James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot shared the stage one night in Detroit for a benefit concert back in October 1977. Here’s Harry singing “Taxi” with Denver pinch-hitting for Big John Wallace with a falsetto during the bridge. Wow!!! What a story of a life he led.
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