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Music / Harry Chapin

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And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon,
Little boy blue and the man in the moon,
"When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when",
But we'll get together then,
You know we'll have a good time then...
— "Cat's in the Cradle"

Harold Forster Chapin (December 7, 1942 – July 16, 1981) was a popular American folk rock singer-songwriter and philanthropist, from the 1970s until his tragically young demise. In his short career, he created such famous songs as "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi".

Chapin 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).
    • "We Grew Up a Little Bit" follows the progression (and deterioration) of a couple and their marriage.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: "Mismatch" has a rather dark version of this, with the narrator being a working-class guy who's involved with a well-bred woman who apparently only wants to use him for rough sex.
    I saw you as the answer
    That I never dared to dream
    I saw you as the window
    Into a world I'd never seen
    I saw you as the vision
    Come to raise me from the mud
    But you came to use my sweat
    To cool the fever in your blood
  • 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 not 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 an actual truck crash in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
    • "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" was 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."
  • Bittersweet Ending: One interpretation of "Cat's in the Cradle": The father and the son never get to have time together, but the son mentions one of the reasons he can't visit is because his own son is "sick with the flu", implying that he's trying to be there for his own son.
  • 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.
    • "Dance Band on the Titanic" is about the sinking of the Titanic and spends a lot of time poking fun at the people who said What Could Possibly Go Wrong?.
  • BSoD 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".
  • Dirty Cop: The lead of "Copper".
  • Don't Fear the Reaper: "Corey's Coming" could be interpreted this way.
  • Don't Tell My Son: "Copper" starts when a Dirty Cop is almost exposed as dirty in front of his kid, and the first two verses are him unloading on the person who tried to bribe him. He actually hopes that his son grows up to become police chief and kicks him out for corruption.
  • 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.
      • Or, at least, the son is too busy for his father. The son's mention of his children in the last verse could mean that he, at least, doesn't want to be a Disappeared Dad to his own children, making it a Bittersweet Ending.
    • "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.
    • See I Will Wait for You for when "Corey's Coming" pull this off.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: "Cat's in the Cradle" has the father observe that his son is "just like (him)." But depending on how you interpret the song, and the fact that the boy is busy with his sick children, it might prove that the son actually makes time for his family, unlike his father.
  • 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 has ended up just like him. (He's arguably wrong about that, though, as his son is taking time out to tend 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
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: "Six-String Orchestra"
  • I Am Not Pretty: The waitress in "A Better Place to Be":
    She said, "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.
  • Ignored Expert: The plot of "The Rock". A huge boulder has leaned over a village for "a hundred thousand years", but one townsman has a Prophetic Dream that it's about to "tumble to the ground" and crush everything in its path. He warns the populace, but everyone thinks he's crazy. When the rock finally begins to fall, the man sacrifices his own body to stop it, only to be dismissed even in death. However, the song's final lines hint that the danger's not over yet:
    But high up on the mountain
    When the wind is hitting it
    If you're watching very closely
    The rock slips a little bit
  • Ironic Echo: The third and fourth choruses in "Cat's In a Cradle" are read in reverse, as in the preceding verses it's now the son who doesn't have time for his father. Chapin's added inflection even throws in a little Sarcasm Mode in how the son responds.
    When ya comin' home, Son? I don't know when
    But we'll get together then, Dad
    I know we'll have a good time then
  • 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. Chapin originally intended to be serious, until he 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.
    • "Dance Band on the Titanic" is a happy, peppy song about the sinking of the Titanic.
  • 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 University of Texas tower in 1966.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: At the end of "Cat's in the Cradle", the narrator comes to the sad realization (though whether this is true is up for the listener to decide) that his son turned out just like him: a man too busy for his family. And he only has himself to blame.
  • 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.
  • Playing Catch with the Old Man: "Cat's in the Cradle" has a verse in which not taking time to play with one's son is synecdoche for being a distant father.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: By the end of "Flowers Are Red", the boy has started drawing flowers with red petals and green leaves like his first teacher wanted him to, and lost his creativity. But now he has a nice teacher who encourages him to draw whatever he wants, suggesting that he could learn to have fun and be creative again.
  • 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, PA

    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..."
  • Teacher's Unfavorite Student: "Flowers Are Red" is about a little boy who has the creativity squashed out of him by his mean teacher, who punishes him for drawing flowers of many colors while saying, "Flowers are red, young man, and green leaves are green. There's no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen." After some time, he moves to a different school with a nicer teacher who encourages him to have fun painting and draw colorful flowers, but he draws them in neat rows with red petals and green leaves. When asked why, he repeats what his first teacher said: "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."
  • Thriving Ex-Crush: Played with in "Taxi", in which the narrator is a cab driver who happens to pick up his ex-girlfriend Sue. She's clearly married rich, and he drops her off at a fancy house, but he speculates that she's only acting happy (although it's worth noting that he's also using drugs to cope with his own unhappiness and thus might be projecting.) Subverted in a sequel song ten years later, called "Sequel", in which the driver, now a successful musician, finds Sue again, and this time she's working-class and living in a modest brownstone, but also happier.
  • Two First Names: John Joseph, the protagonist of "Corey's Coming." The song even quotes the trope when it introduces him.
  • 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 now "acting happy inside her handsome home", while Harry is "flying in [his] taxi, taking tips and getting stoned".
  • Wham Line: The end of "The Mayor of Candor Lied".
    • The last line of "The Shortest Story" Also counts: "Why is there nothing now to do but die?" Mostly because the song just ends there.
  • 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.