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Harry Chapin discusses his career as a writer and singer and reflects on the stories behind his music

BROADCAST: Mar. 31, 1975 | DURATION: 00:22:28


Studs interviews Harry Chapin about his music and career. They discuss Chapin’s style of writing songs. Chapin describes some of his songs such as “Cats In the Cradle,” “Sniper,” “WOLD,” and “Mr. Tanner.” He stresses that his songs tell stories and often are influenced by real-life events. For example, “30,000 Bananas Pounds of Bananas” came from a trip he took on a Greyhound bus through Pennsylvania where there was a truck accident. Chapin talks about his Broadway musical play, “The Night That Made America Famous.” He discusses his artsy family background and the influence that had on him. The music is removed from this edited version of the original recording.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Harry Chapin is more than just a singer of songs that reflect our times you might call him a chronicler too in his way of the lives and the thoughts of ordinary people so-called and in a sense he he sings out and speaks out their extraordinary dreams and you know of him primarily because of his most popular song up to now, "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle" and Harry is my guest this morning and we'll hear some of his songs and his thoughts reflections concerning them and and the world in which we live in a moment after this message. [Pause in the recording] And so was this song story this incident Harry the cab driver meetings Sue, Harry Chapin this particular song. Who is Harry Chapin?

Harry Chapin In the song or in real life?

Studs Terkel Well both. In this, well start with the song.

Harry Chapin Well the song is about 60 percent true. I I see I believe that a a performer owes only emotional reality to his songs that he should talk about things that he understands intuitively but it doesn't have to make him literally himself hopefully a good song or a good work of art is like a well brought up child it has reflections of the parent but it's got its own personality its own realities hopefully can be larger than the parent. And so when I start writing a song if it tends to you know go in a different direction then it actually happened to me and I'm very willing to let it go because I hope it can be larger than me.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Because the song it's more than the story of a cab driver in this gir-

Harry Chapin It's about broken dreams and about how things come true in a perverse way sometimes and it's I was surprised it was ever a hit single of course it was so long and it was about different things then usually kids are worried

Studs Terkel You know we're talking about these songs and the attraction the young and others have for these songs that they're also stories how it came to be. Who's Harry Chapin that is you?

Harry Chapin Well, I I'm 32 years old, came from an artsy fartsy family of writers, painters, teachers, philosophers, musicians, filmmakers, sculptors all you know, collection of very talented weirdos and I've

Studs Terkel And your grandfather very distinguished critic and

Harry Chapin Yes, Kenneth Burke and another grandfather is an American senior painter James Chapin and my father played with Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Tony Pastor, and my my uncle was Flaherty's camera man for many years.

Studs Terkel It just occurred to me, you James Chapin I know him.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel I knew him. He was on this program once.

Harry Chapin Wow.

Studs Terkel You- gran-, the painter.

Harry Chapin Yeah, right.

Studs Terkel Yeah, isn't that fantastic! It just, just occurred to me.

Harry Chapin So, I as a matter of fact nobody in my family has been monetarily successful that much. I mean but they've all been very much looked up to in their fields and so there's a kind of a challenge in my family not to be anything major success but to find something you care about deeply and and do it. And I've been sort of stumbling around for my 32 years getting a lot of tactile experiences so that I str- strangely enough ended up to being a writer and all my confusions earlier have ahe- added to the raw material for my writing.

Studs Terkel And how about the the form of these songs? How, how did music come to you?

Harry Chapin Well, I mean I started out as a you know a kid trumpet player. I used to play classical trumpet and I found out girls like guitar players better and changed over to guitar. But, basically I think the story song thing evolved out of a bunch of things. One I was a filmmaker a documentary filmmaker for 7 years between 1965 and 1971. I had some success at that. I had a film I wrote and directed in 1969. Was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Feature Documentary. But I when you're working in a cinema verite you constantly have to look for characters, look for people that have something pending something important that's going to happen not necessarily to the world but to themselves that they care about. And so I've ended up perhaps going from my earlier kinds of songs which are very optimistic, attitudinal songs they just have a tonality you say,"I love you, I hate you, war is horrible." I've gone from that into creating the situations that created the attitude. Putting a a tonality and letting hopefully m- it's a very cinematic style letting the situation unfold around the

Studs Terkel Yeah. So isn't it, you just hit it I think it the fact that it's sort of a movie isn't it?

Harry Chapin Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel We see it we visualize it too don't we?

Harry Chapin There's no line in "Taxi" for example explains how the guy feels or the girl feels but I think everybody I'm trying to hit the pressure points the nerve endings that would trigger people's own minds to have their own reactions to the situation.

Studs Terkel See, we see in your number of albums you've done for Elektra were and the first one and. The most recent is Verities and Balderdash. The title itself gives you an idea of how you feel about things.

Harry Chapin Well I mean obvio- truth

Studs Terkel Truth and yeah

Harry Chapin I mean I just, it ru-, life runs the full the full spectrum of the sacred to the profane and you hopefully you can capture that in your work.

Studs Terkel Well, there's one of the songs in there that may deal with a very theme the the the distance between parent and child. I suppose far "Cat's in the Cradle" has. Set the scene for that "Cat's in the Cradle." How that came to be?

Harry Chapin Well I've been running around the country doing a lot of concerts over the last 3 years and my wife wrote a poem that was mildly mildly or not so mildly a zinger about the fact my boy Josh who's now 2 and half wasn't seeing that much of me and I took the poem and changed around a little bit with some rhymes in it and made a song that I never also thought would be a single but because I didn't think that you know teenybopper girls who are the basically the people who buy singles would be interested in it but it turned out to be a number 1 number 1 hit. It's about that sense of you know you pay your dues both positively and negatively and you get the payoff at the end and that's what happens to this father.

Studs Terkel Who there was the distance somebody that's distance from the son to him as he grows up.

Harry Chapin Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel Well suppose we hear it.

Harry Chapin Okay.

Studs Terkel [music playing] And so there's an ironic, there's an ironic payoff to "Cat's in the Cradle" isn't there?

Harry Chapin Yeah. Well I most of my songs come full circle as a very the whole sense in "Taxi" of coming back. You know the whole dream coming around the full way. And here in "Cat's In The Cradle" you know not always necessarily the way you think it would but that's what I I try to I look for that sense of form.

Studs Terkel And here too, "My boy is just like me." Just as he ignored him. The boy now grown ignores him.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel So the need not fulfilled ever.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel In this case.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel I suppose one of the themes there's a recurring theme through all your works. Harry Chapin is my guest and by the time this broadcast is heard you will have been here this one night and we'll ask about his what's it's called opera musical which he's performing now The Night That Made America Famous. But this is parenthesis [unintelligible] end of parenthesis. The idea that your songs have this theme of unfulfilled, something missing the gap in it.

Harry Chapin Well I mean to me the most meaningful times in life are when everything isn't adding up when things are going great you don't need to communicate you just sort of float along on that wave and sail along and that's when you don't need communication, you don't need understanding, you don't need insight. But to me the times when I have the most meaningful times in my life are the times when I've gotten scars and when wounds and and so I write about those times when people come to those folds those creases in life that point out those some hopefully an insight and maybe the implication which is never put in the song the implication is hopefully that understanding where where one loses out or misses might hopefully have an effect in a positive way. I think "Cat's in the Cradle" has probably affected some fathers and mothers in a way that might make them deal with their kids a little bit differently. I know it's affected me.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of, of the songs too that you've put together and that you offer with your colleagues who accompany you there. The, how would you describe what you're doing now in New York called The Night That Made America Famous?

Harry Chapin Well it's a new kind of synthesis it's part theatre part pop concert, part multimedia experience. It's an emotional recapitulation of the last 15 years about how it has been growing up in America. Not a literal or linear journey but one that sort of is as in a dream would make jump the emotional jumps I mean an equivalent would example would be ending the March on Washington in 1963 with Kennedy's assassination. There was 6 months between them. But as you start going through I mean a lot of the sixties when you start adding it all up it's the Kennedy assassination the other Kennedy assassination the King assassination a lot of that sense of random violence jumping in and slashing at us it's the broken dreams of.

Studs Terkel Well, sin- since you mentioned random violence does occur. One of your songs we won't play it here because it's about 10 minutes or so and it's about. It's called "Sniper."

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel Now this of course is specifically about a particular one.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel Charles Whitman, Texas.

Harry Chapin Well it just it seemed to me one of the examples of these guys coming out of nowhere and rather bloodily etching themselves in the on the yo- our consciousness is here's a, I mean here's a man who was John Lennon's "Nowhere Man." In a sense he never existed really to all of us until he started shooting 37 people and asking you know in a, in the song, "Am I, am I?" And in the very act of having the we start shooting back at him and finally killing him realizing that he had existed. Now it's sort of a sad commentary that a lot of us never do really exist until we etch ourselves bloodily into the national psyche. I mean sadly enough most of the meaningful changes that have happened in this country have been purely through violence not

Studs Terkel "It's funny I didn't live until I'd committed an act of violence," says Bigger Thomas in Native Son that Richard Wright wrote a generation ago and toward the end he's on the roof as the cops are getting toward him. He'd killed someone at that moment. He was a number until that moment.

Harry Chapin Right. Well that's what this song is about and actually I mean there's a funny kind of communion I feel with you having never met you before but I think you. Bu- you honestly believe in or in me that I think and not only intuitively but externally that that that where the answer is if there is such a thing as an answer and I am not so sure there is. I mean there's attitudes that allow you to function but where the secrets lie really are in the in in in the people everywhere ranging from the sickies like Charles Whitmore [Whitman] to the kind of people that are in your book working you know just the soul of this country really is and then in blue collars and and stained white collars not in

Studs Terkel Well it's in, in a way perhaps we shouldn't you know either stereotype. There's got to be a combination. I think what you say is I think it's partly true but I think I think it has to be a fusion somehow of both of what I call the book and the street both,

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel Yeah. But we, how did you come to do snip- you said you had read about Bremer who tried to assassinate George Wallace.

Harry Chapin Yeah the well a that sense the Bremer diaries had that that complete berzerk random randomness about them. I mean other words if you remember he wasn't just thinking about assassinating Wallace. He was thinking about maybe Nixon maybe he had a whole bunch of different people in his notebooks. And so it's that reminded me again of this Whitmore [Whitman] situation and.

Studs Terkel He also he became known then to the

Harry Chapin Yeah right.

Studs Terkel He came famous.

Harry Chapin And and there is that sense in the Sirhan Sirhan diaries and there's a sense I think in Manson and Stark- Starkweather and Speck and Essex and all these people that have jumped out of nowhere and have had a major effect and are all of our tone at the tonality of the way we look at our times, I think we're going to see more and more of it frankly because there's there are a large sector part of large sectors of our population that really have no other way to speak who really have no stake in the established order who are. I mean just like the Palestine Liberation Organization I think they're you know crazy people but the fact is they are playing in a card game that's stacked against them. Why should they play with the rules? The SLA is another example.

Studs Terkel "Who can he be?" Is one of the lyrics you have. Who can he be? They ask of Whitman when all the blood was there and they finally caught him after his killing. "Who can he be?" He was very dull boy very taciturn not much of a joiner. They would learn no no. In short he wasn't even there and suddenly he's there.

Harry Chapin Right, right. Well I think I think all of us feel a lack of existence at times don't you have a feeling of you know well I think most people in the performance arts are probably more insecure than anybody else because they say, "It's not enough to have my wife know I'm alive. It's not enough my kids to know I'm alive and my mother and my friends. I need 5,000 people standing up and cheering me to to assure me that I exist." And I'm- you know I mean so you have to question yourself somebody's motivations that's why I think I could write something

Studs Terkel And Nixon needed those tapes right?

Harry Chapin Right.

Studs Terkel And those tapes, I tape therefore I am. [laughter]

Harry Chapin I love it [loud laughter].

Studs Terkel So Harry Chapin is my guest and I thinking of an a song in contrast to Whitman and the others you've got this guy rarely heard from a man of Mr. Tanner and this is the, who's Mr. Tanner, before we hear it. Who is Mr. Tanner?

Harry Chapin Well I wrote it about a real person whose name I won't mention because I never met him but there was a review in the, in The New York Times that was in- incredibly brutal it took 4 lines and it reamed him I paraphrase it in the song. But the thing about classical music is you're working unlike my side of the music business you're not working just towards communication but you working towards arbitrary perfection tonal colour, tone production, purity of pitch. And here's a guy who spends 15 years working damn hard for towards getting that but who is really enjoying music the whole time and he gets both because of his own ambi- minor ambitions of getting pushed into it getting into the big time and then getting reamed by a critic and what happens

Studs Terkel Also a guy who just enjoyed what he was doing not as a pro.

Harry Chapin Right.

Studs Terkel The cleaner sang, "So is it you got to be a pro."

Harry Chapin Yeah everybody said, "Well you're just not real unless you're a pro.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear it and then

Harry Chapin Talk

Studs Terkel We'll talk as a result of it. [music playing] Mr. Tanner. We we'll talk about Mr. Tanner in a moment [repeated hammering]. That sound you hear is a hammering upstairs.

Harry Chapin Well I'm glad somebody is working.

Studs Terkel Somebody is trying to say something [laughter]. And and and I thinking this Mr. Tanner we'll talk about the song Harry Chapin my guest and we would [repeated hammering] take this slight pause for a message he records for Elektra a good number of these songs that say a great deal we return in just a moment after this message. [Pause the recording] And so we resume the conversation with, Harry Chapin and we this [repeated hammering] last son-, yeah how is that is that heard do you hear that? That's the hammering. Yeah.

Harry Chapin Oh, well I as I say it's good that somebody is doing something productive.

Studs Terkel No the maint- you have no song about a maintenance man don't you?

Harry Chapin No I guess I'll have to work on one.

Studs Terkel What's up with the maintenance man and his work and not that he wants to do but somehow things are always being repaired because things are always falling apart

Harry Chapin Yeah yeah.

Studs Terkel So Tanner was a cleaner. And he was he got a kick out of singing didn't he the [unintelligible]. But you got to make money out of

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel Otherwise, you're not real if you unless you make money out of that's what happened to him isn't it?

Harry Chapin Well it's that sense that you were talking about a professionalism that in this country. And what is it an avocation when you're not doing it for serious and and so you look you look at a certain askance. You know if you have an amateur love

Studs Terkel You know [repeated hammering] the word amateur you said amateur love of the word amateur is you know latin amor, amateur means love.

Harry Chapin I didn't know

Studs Terkel A lover, you see that's interesting. Amateur from amor it's latin see.

Harry Chapin Oh

Studs Terkel So there see. So the very fact that someone is an amateur in the best sense involves a joy.

Harry Chapin Although you don't want to know how it comes around full circle and the other way. I I find it an awful lot of people in the artistic world now look askance at people that are professionals and the good sense of the word i.e. they like to think that people create only through the fact that the Lord comes down and sits on their shoulders and spits lightning bolts in the ears and that they're good honest labor and the creative you know working on your techniques getting your chops together really is something that still looks [loud repeated hammering] suspiciously at but a your creations come from a cauldron of passion that comes roaring out at certain things and that maybe you were a child seer you have you're not an intelligent person but you're somebody who has this genius inside of you that tends to needs to roar out. And I think especially in the rock industry there's a real tendency for people to look suspiciously at people who seriously deeply care about the craft of writing and they would rather have people that are in a sense killing themselves you know the Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison kind of syndrome. And I mean it's an interesting question whether whether how much how much of creativity is passion and how much it is technique, or professionalism or craftsmanship or whatever [repeated hammering].

Studs Terkel I'm thinking as as you're talking it was both you you were talking about craftsmanship.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel At the same time I can't help I'm sure the audience can't help but hear the sound up above it's sort of an ablegato you see. It's a very [trying?] point.

Harry Chapin Counterpoint.

Studs Terkel Counterpoint. As though it's saying as though it's saying what's the difference [laughter]. Perhaps[repeated hammering] you know a lot of your "Taxi" is one, you also deal with travel means of transportation. There's a trend. One is called "Greyhound."

Harry Chapin Right.

Studs Terkel Another is called,

Harry Chapin Take the Greyhound it's a dog of a way to get around.

Studs Terkel And "30,000 Pounds of Bananas."

Harry Chapin That's a true story, Studs. That's about a trip that I took on a Greyhound bus through Scranton, Pennsylvania 1965 [repeated hammering starts again]. I wrote a poem about it that eventually put some music to it. But a, and it was really it was a comment on Vietnam War casualties frankly even though it's about a truck driver and his 30,000 pounds of bananas but we get very enamored with statistics and large numbers and we forget about the human tragedies involved and this is a story song about this guy learning about what had happened to this driver and his 30,000 pounds of bananas and you tend to start laughing about the bananas forgetting about what was happening to the driver.

Studs Terkel Suppose we hear what happened to him first.

Harry Chapin Okay.

Studs Terkel About his ordeal his work and always the 30,000 pounds of bananas.

Harry Chapin He can't get away from them.

Studs Terkel And so we have a crash but there's something you do it as though at the very end as though it were funny you know.

Harry Chapin Well it's black humor. It's not.

Studs Terkel No it's I mean the irony of it. You know it's done.

Harry Chapin Well that the man who told me about it didn't have any teeth and he's there getting terribly enthralled about the whole

Studs Terkel These are actual.

Harry Chapin Yeah this is a true story. And the guy that's how I got the the idea just from the sense I if you've got that hill in Scranton is about 2 miles long and it's a killer. I mean every couple of years somebody bites the barrier on it. And the fact is that the guy who was telling me the story in- would the incidental thing was the horror the real thing to him was the bananas. The fact there were 30,000 pounds of bananas thrown all

Studs Terkel Yeah, mashed bananas. The fact that man was killed was secondary.

Harry Chapin No, yeah. Yeah and that's what the, that was the irony that you know and I maybe I played a trick on the audience which is not necessarily a nice thing to do to start it out and they start laughing and all of a sudden they find themselves, [leu?] and then they goes laughing again. But

Studs Terkel And an even musically at the end as it were almost a one of those country dances and way you know, the music itself.

Harry Chapin Yeah. Sort of country it's a country song I was hoping that Johnny Cash would sing it but he was too busy with Amoco gas.

Studs Terkel You know here again you're doing it does as as irony. Irony is part of the your you were to so. About 4 different albums all Elektra in a variety of songs that offer your vision. Basically it's your vision isn't it?

Harry Chapin Yeah yeah. I mean that's what I guess any writer has to offer

Studs Terkel You have when we are we have time to play because is one I thinking about "W.O.L.D." we'll end with "Better Place to Be" I'd ask you about W.O.

Harry Chapin Yeah.

Studs Terkel This is the disc jockey this that genial hyperactive disc jockey.

Harry Chapin Forty-five going on 15. The irony there of course is the fact that here you are in a business where you keep getting older but the kids don't you're and you constantly have a new audience. It's always 15, always 15 and you're getting to be 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and that you're not allowed to age gracefully and you're in the business because you've got to be hyper you

Studs Terkel So this guy is playing the child continuously.

Harry Chapin Yeah and while he's having to be you know, "Hey, ho, yo, come on kids and let's do it and I'm!" And the funny thing is that it relates to performing the reason I could write the song I think it's because there's so many identities between performers and disc jockeys in the sense that you go from town to town you live a very transitory life. Most jockeys don't stay in one place for any long period of time. And you're you're in a situation of aging although I've luckily in a sense since I write songs that are about me and my tonality I've never written songs to 15-year-olds I write songs for people and so luckily some 15-year-olds like them and some 50-year-olds like them and 80-year-olds and 10-year-olds.

Studs Terkel Well perhaps we should end I'm thinking about synthesis of the the how, why won't you describe what you do in New York the the. This your one night off while are you here. The Night That Made America Famous. You describe it as a musical as a mixed [visages?] what?

Harry Chapin Well as just a new synthesis and a- but I mean basically it's my vision again of how it's been in America and a my story songs are the way I do it. I don't tell people how to think what I try to do gi- is give them a slice of life

Studs Terkel This one album is called swi- that isn't it, the one album was called

Harry Chapin Short stories.

Studs Terkel Short stories.

Harry Chapin Right.

Studs Terkel And this one the one which "Taxi" appears is perhaps the one end with "Better Place to Be." Suppose you set the scene for that?

Harry Chapin Yeah well it's really about Watertown, New York which is a little town that's there's thousands of them around the country they're not very exciting on the outside but if you keep your eyes open you find all kinds of stories walking around and this is about a rather odd triangle of people. Little midnight watchman, an incredible looking woman who is sort of lost who he picks up one night and the barmaid who he's telling the story to and it's I think one of my in the final analysis one of my most compassionate songs or I hope it would be.

Studs Terkel Well I suppose we end with that and. Any thought comes to your mind how before we say goodbye we'll sort of go off with the music is we came on with the music.

Harry Chapin Oh, well that would be nice. Well all I could say is that it's I have interviews with all different kinds of people in my world and this is the first time I've really been interviewed by somebody who, outside of the interviewing and I've met and did done some interviews with very well-known interviewers. But your talents in terms of writing I'm in awe of and I'm privileged to be here.

Studs Terkel Well thank you, that's a bonus [laughing]. Thank you. And Tom, Harry Chapin by the way I said Tom your brother does a program that's pretty, very well received. Young people like it very much and others too it's it's.

Harry Chapin Make a Wish it just won the Emmy as the best kid's show on

Studs Terkel It's you're brothers pro-. I think it's here on a Sunday morning

Harry Chapin Yeah I write the music for

Studs Terkel it. You

Harry Chapin So there's a little nepotism there.

Studs Terkel Harry Chapin my guest, the songs and the story songs stories are Elektra albums, a variety of them. Thank you very much as we all look for a for a better place to be.