Music / Harry Chapin

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Harry Chapin (19421981) was an American folk rock musician and philanthropist in the 1970s and early '80s, and creator of such famous songs as "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi".

He was killed in 1981 in a traffic accident while on his way to a free benefit concert he was giving, although he may have already been dead; the autopsy and his driving patterns, which caused the accident, are consistent with him having suffered a heart attack behind the wheel.

Harry's work provides examples of:

  • Age-Progression Song:
    • "Cat's in the Cradle" goes from the birth of the narrator's son, through young childhood and college years, to his own adulthood.
    • "Dreams Go By" is about a couple who puts off their dreams until they're too old to dream anymore.
    • "The Rock" is about a man who spends his whole life averting disaster.
    • "I Don't Want to Be President" goes through the life of a person — baby, child, college grad, congressman — to the point where he becomes President.
    • "She's Always Seventeen". The story of a woman who lives through 1961-1975, but retains the spirit of a 17 year old.
    • "Basic Protest Song" (13, 20, 30).
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The "she" of "She Is Always Seventeen" is basically one of these for the youthful idealism of The '60s.
  • Assimilation Academy: "Flowers Are Red" is about a young child being punished for making his flowers all red and the effect this has on him. In it, the kid is forced to sit in a corner until he believes that "Flowers are red, and green leaves are green. There's no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen."
  • Audience Participation Song: Live performances of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" had the audience joining along in the choruses of the song.
  • Auto Erotica:
    • In "Taxi", the singer mentions that he and Sue "learned about love in the back of a Dodge".
    • In "Northwest 222", his SO would pick him up from the airport in the van and they'd "find a place for parking when the loving would not wait".
  • Based on a True Story:
    • "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" was inspired by a real truck crash.
    • "Sniper" is loosely based on Charles Whitman's shooting spree at the University of Texas in 1966.
    • "Mr. Tanner" is based on a concert review Harry read in The New York Times.
    • "Flowers Are Red" is inspired by a report card one of his acquaintances received about their son, saying "Your son marches to the beat of a different drummer, comma, but don't worry we will have him joining the parade by the end of the term."
  • Black Comedy: "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" is a humorous song about a truck driver who loses control driving down a hill and is decapitated in the ensuing crash.
  • B.S.O.D. Song: "Sniper".
  • Cassandra Truth: "The Rock"
  • Caustic Critic: The title character of "Mr. Tanner" receives such caustic reviews of his first public performance that he gives up singing entirely, even alone around the house.
  • Cheap Heat: In live performances, Chapin would often substitute the callsign of a local radio station in the final verse of "W*O*L*D".
  • Dan Browned: "She Is Always Seventeen" features this verse:
    In 1963, Black and White upon the land
    She brought me to the monuments and made us all join hands
    And scarcely six months later, she held me through the night
    When we heard of what had happened in that brutal Dallas light
The march on Washington was in August 1963, three months — not six — before President Kennedy was assassinated.
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: "Corey's Coming" could be interpreted this way.
  • Downer Ending: Most of Harry's works.
    • "The Day They Closed the Factory Down".
    • "Cat's in the Cradle" is about a father who's too busy to spend time with his family, despite which his son declares that he's going to grow up just like his dad. It ends with the father discovering that his now-adult son has grown up just like him, in that he's now too busy to spend time with his family too.
    • "The Shortest Story" is about a baby being born and then starving to death. It's about two minutes long including the instrumental bits.
    • "Mr. Tanner" is about a man who gives up everything to sing, which is what makes him feel whole, only to get poor reviews and his dreams crushed so completely that he never sings again.
    • "The Rock": The main protagonist pulls a Heroic Sacrifice to save his town from disaster, but the last line of the song hints that he was merely delaying the inevitable.
  • Dual-Meaning Chorus: The chorus of "Cat's in the Cradle" ends with the son asking his father a question, and always receiving the same reply — except the last time, when (with a slight wording change), it's the father asking the question and the son giving the same reply he always received.
  • Dying Town: "The Day They Closed the Factory Down"
  • Eagleland: "What Made America Famous?" is about the tension between type one and type two — it describes a mild type two, but ends with a plea to make the country a type one.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: "Sequel" is, in fact, a Sequel Song to "Taxi".
  • Generation Xerox: The narrator of "Cat's in the Cradle" laments that his son ends up just like him. He's arguably wrong about that, though, as his son IS taking time out to help his sick kids.
  • Giftedly Bad: "Six String Orchestra" is about a hopeless musician who refuses to give up the dream.
    I sent a demo tape I made to the record companies
    Two came back address unknown, one came back COD
    Of course I got form letters all saying pleasant things
    Like suggesting I should find a trade where I would not have to sing
  • I Am Not Pretty: The waitress in "A Better Place To Be": "I wish that I was beautiful, or you were halfway blind..."
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: One of the reactions the protagonist of "Six String Orchestra" gets to his enthusiastic but incompetent playing.
  • I Will Wait for You: "Corey's Coming" is about a man who waits his entire life for an old flame to return to him. She finally shows up—at his funeral.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" ends in an elongated scream.
  • Live Album: Several, most notably 1976's Greatest Stories Live, which is his best-selling album.
  • Lonely Funeral: At the end of "Corey's Coming":
    The scene at the graveyard, just three of us were there
    Me and the gravedigger heard the parson's prayer
  • Loners Are Freaks: "Sniper" deconstructs this. The titular sniper admits when we hear his thoughts that being shunned and treated like a freak for being a loner is what drove him to his rampage.
  • Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: "A Better Place to Be"
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" is a cheerful, up-tempo song and a crowd-pleasing favorite... about a real life fatal truck accident. Originally intended to be serious, until Chapin realized how hard it was to keep a straight face while singing about a man being killed by bananas. Note 
    • "Dreams Go By" is a bouncy-sounding number masking a bittersweet tale of two people whose childhood dreams are deferred and ultimately discarded by work, marriage, and family.
  • Morality Ballad: The vast majority of Harry's songs are this.
    • "Cat's in the Cradle": Make time to spend time with your children when they're growing up.
    • "The Rock".
    • "Flowers Are Red": Forcing children into narrow conformity is bad.
  • Murder Ballad: "Sniper" is about Charles Whitman and his infamous rampage atop the Texas university tower.
  • Non-Appearing Title: The word sniper never appears in "Sniper."
  • Only Sane Man: The protagonist of "The Rock".
  • Perspective Reversal: "Cat's in the Cradle" is all about one.
  • Revised Ending: The Greatest Stories Live version of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" has two:
    • Yes, we have no bananas
      We have no bananas today
      Yes, We have no bananas
      Bananas in Scranton, P A
    • A woman walks into her room
      Where her child lies sleeping
      And when she sees his eyes are closed,
      She sits there silently weeping
      And though she lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania
      She never, ever eats bananas
      Not one of thirty thousand pounds of bananas
  • Sad Clown: "The Laugh Man":
    My ego is a bubble that I realize just broke
    And alone without a microphone, my whole life's a joke
    I am the laugh man
    Half clown and half man
    Half out and half in, Mister can't you see?
    I'm supposed to leave you laughing, so why don't you laugh at me?
  • Sequel Song: "Sequel" is a sequel to "Taxi".
  • Singer-Songwriter
  • Step Up to the Microphone:
    • John Wallace, the bassist in Chapin's backing band, performs the second part of the "Taxi" bridge ("Baby's so high that she's skying...") in a falsetto voice. He also performs the "part" of the title character in "Mr. Tanner", singing the chorus of "O Holy Night" in his natural baritone overlapping with Harry's singing of the actual chorus.
    • "Let Time Go Lightly," which can be heard on the Greatest Stories Live album, was written and performed by Harry's brother Steve, who was the band's pianist. Harry's other brother Tom, also a guitar player, would frequently sing parts of songs during the live shows.
    • During live performances of "Circle", Harry would insist that everyone from other members of the band all the way to the road crew sing a stanza of the song, partly as a novel way to showcase the people who made his band operate, and also to encourage Audience Participation, insisting that anyone and everyone is able to sing the song.
  • Take That!:
    • In Harry's introduction of the second ending of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" above:
      Since it was a country song, maybe I could write a country ending — something about motherhood, since the song already had a truck in it...
    • "She Is Always Seventeen" includes a line about "nineteen seventy-five, when the crooked king was gone..."
  • Two First Names: John Joseph, the protagonist of "Corey's Coming."
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever: "Taxi" has Harry encounter Sue; the two knew each other from "a long time ago." Sue went to pursue a career in the theater while Harry tried to become a pilot; neither succeeded. Instead, Sue is acting happy inside her handsome home, while Harry is "flying" in his taxi.
  • Villain Protagonist:
    • "Sniper" takes about as sympathetic view of the shooter as possible, but he still shot dozens of people.
    • "WOLD" is about a guy who dumped his wife and family and then turns up eight years later, expressing no concern at all for how the kids are doing or what his absence did to them — he just wants to talk about himself, and for good measure he hints at his ex that he wants her back. (She's smart enough to decline.)
    • "If My Mary Were Here" is about a guy who calls his ex in the middle of the night to whine about how the woman he dumped her for has now dumped him, and he invites himself to her place.
    • "Cat's in the Cradle" is about a man who neglects his family.
  • Wham Line: The end of "The Mayor of Candor Lied".
  • When You Coming Home, Dad?: "Cat's in the Cradle" is the trope namer, and a unique case, in that the story is being told by the distant father.

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