MIKE BAKER ON: HARRY CHAPIN


HARRY FORSTER CHAPIN
EDP 380D, FALL, 1996
MIKE BAKER




In the short thirty-nine years of the life of Harry Forster Chapin (1942-1981), he managed to distinguish himself as a creative genius in multiple fields, ultimately leaving a distinct mark on this world, though he received only moderate public recognition. Professionally, he was a musical performer and songwriter, a film editor, and a political activist and lobbyist, able to reach remarkable heights in all three fields. In the field of music, Chapin rose to stardom as a rock and roll performer and songwriter during the 1970's, introducing the world to a new style of music he created and popularized, the story-song. Within this new framework, Chapin was able to use his interest and proficiency in poetry to create song lyrics which told the story of a character or group of characters. He was able to weave wonderfully powerful tales of the lives of his characters in a few short stanzas, applying many traditional story-line techniques; a rising action which lead to a climax, followed by a falling action which usually revealed an unexpected twist, offering a recognizable message in the last few lyrics of the song. The subjects of these songs were generally based on Chapin's real life experiences and moods, and in this sense, he was able to express more honestly the feeling associated with the stories. Furthermore, Chapin went a step further by adding music to his stories, accentuating the changes in tone of the stories with musical accompaniments. His musical style contained many folk, rock and roll, jazz and blues elements, revealing his diverse musical background and familiarity with a variety of styles. The result was a remarkably popular style, which granted Chapin the ability to generate a strong connection to his audience during live performances. Most listeners were entranced by the hypnotic power of the songs, and came to regard the Chapin's performances as strongly emotional and provocative.

This success in performance and songwriting was, in part, developed through Chapin's earlier career as a film editor. In this field, Chapin attained a moderate level of success, though the regularity of the working hours never really appealed to him. At one point, in 1969, a documentary he assisted in putting together, called Legendary Champions, detailing the lives of American boxers, was nominated for an Academy Award, though the film was not given the prize. In was the experience in this field, the ability to take hours of film and retain only the most essential pieces, which benefited him greatly when it came to the creation of his story-songs.

As a result of the success of his musical career, Chapin became interested in and committed to humanitarian causes, involved heavily in contributing both his time and financial awards from concert and benefit earnings. This interest was initially developed by his wife Sandy, who, during a turbulent period in their marriage, insisted that Harry devote his time to more meaningful causes, as opposed to the self-serving activities of most rock and roll musicians. Harry agreed, and from that point on, began building what would become a longstanding commitment to such specific causes as world hunger relief and, more locally, assisting the Performing Arts Foundation (PAF) of New York. While such a commitment was by no means a mark of creative genius, his ability to mobilize political resources to aid in his commitment revealed a remarkable creative nature. Through one of the organizations Harry created, World Hunger Year (WHY), he strongly lobbied members of Congress in Washington D.C., ultimately persuading President Carter to create a presidential commission on world hunger. Said Rick Nolan, a Congressman at the time. "I'd never seen anything like it. The traditional Washington Lobbyist was well paid for the job he did and worked much slower and more casually. So to have a private citizen work the halls of Congress as effectively and comprehensively as he did was truly remarkable." This involvement and achievement marked the highlight of his political career, but reveals only a slight amount of Harry's commitment to the issue. Herein lies perhaps his greatest creative gift. He was able to take this musical success, talent, and reputation and transform it into a mechanism for constantly articulating his commitment to certain causes, and for lobbying a national institution like any insider rarely could have.

Given these remarkable creative accomplishments, one can recognize the genius of Harry Chapin. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is the manner in which harry's childhood and earlier life planted within him the seeds which would later blossom into the accomplishments discussed above. Certainly, Harry's primary career fields were all interrelated, one having a direct cause on or effect from another. Expanding this idea on an even greater scale, it's fascinating to recognize how Harry's entire life very much embodied the same idea of significant interrelationships. Elements of his success can be traced back to his early youth and upbringing, and this pattern is evident from the day he was born until he died in 1981. The life of Harry Chapin is truly a testament to the notion that creative genius is developed over time, and based on the interrelationship of a complex web of events. It's this development within Chapin's life that we now turn our focus to. As we do so, events in detailed in Harry's growth and development will certainly be traceable to the creative successes mentioned above.

We begin with a brief description of Harry Chapin's personal attitude toward life, from which stems many of the motivations for his actions throughout his thirty-nine years. From early on in, Harry had a dream to be universally loved. He was always an exuberant and outgoing individual eager to speak his mind at any given opportunity. This combination resulted many times in Harry plunging into things and then thinking about them afterwards. In many ways, this lack of concern for the consequences of his actions was one of his greatest assets. It enabled Harry to involve himself in a range of experiences, testing each one and unconcerned about how badly he failed. Harry was willing to perform poorly early on at something new, certain that this willingness to take risks would lead him down the path of success. In one of his songs, an autobiographical tune called "There Only Was One Choice", the lyrics echo this notion: "Inexperience it once accursed me, but your youth is no handicap, it's what makes you thirsty." The sentiments were certainly true in the life of Harry Chapin. "Harry loved the sense of challenge, the nerve to risk failure for success, to watch hard work and effort reach a perceptible end, for a perceptible goal or reward."(Coan, 70) It was this willingness to try nearly anything, however, which created a lack of direction in his life. His interests were varied and shifting and his inability to find a single definable career path reveals this. Of course, realizing his natural skill in many areas, this quality may also be looked upon as a positive element in Chapin's life. He had an attitude geared toward success no matter which field he pursued, and Chapin often said that if a singing career didn't materialize, he was going to find his place elsewhere. While this attitude followed Chapin throughout his entire life and played a strong role in the decisions he made, it was by no means this sole influence.

We begin now, to assess and examine several of these other influential factors and events which, in association with Chapin's strong personal attitude, helped develop him into the creative genius he eventually became. Born Harry Forster Chapin on December 7, 1942, Harry was the second of four children of Jim and Elspeth Chapin. Harry's mother, Elspeth, was quite precocious in her own right, earning a high school diploma at the age of 14 and her college degree at the age of 18. The family lived in New York's Greenwich Village at the time of Harry's birth, and Harry remained in that area during his entire upbringing. Harry's father, Jim, was a professional musician, playing the drums with many of the popular jazz and swing bands of the 1930's and 40's. This career lasted throughout Jim's life, in which he later wrote a few percussion books, and at times filled in on drums in the bands Harry and his brothers put together. Born into an advantageous environment for one who would later become a musical creative genius, Harry was introduced to music at an early age and had access to many instruments, first playing the trumpet at the age of three. The artistic and intellectual nature of the Chapin family was attracted to success and power for the purposes of creative fulfillment, and these ideas were instilled at an early age in all the Chapin Children.

Aside from Harry, the remaining children consisted of Jim, Harry's older brother, who developed a strong interest in reading at an early age, and consequently, was tagged as a genius from an early age. Harry was two years younger than Jim, and was able to further his own intellectual development at an early age through the many conversations the two brothers had. The two brothers lived in the same room for the first seventeen years of Harry's life, and many of the lines and intellectual material he later used in his songs, he attributes to the closeness with Jim Additionally, the other brothers included Steve and Tom, both graced with strong musical abilities from an early age. Harry was neither the most traditionally intelligent of the Chapin boys, nor the one exhibiting the most sheer musical talent. His shining quality as a youngster came in form of his expressiveness, a trait which remained with him his entire life. Harry was the influential, vocal leader of this sibling group, and stepped forward when it came to taking control of the group. Throughout their childhood and into adulthood, the brothers, remained very close to one another, relying on each other's company as a substitute for outside friendships.

While the family had seemingly a great deal to offer to an up and coming creative genius, it was by no means the perfect arrangement. Jim's (Harry's father) career demanded a great deal of travel, and this time on the road meant time away from the family. Relations between Jim and Elspeth became strained, and throughout the mid to late forties, the two found it increasingly more difficult for Jim to maintain a performing career and the two to keep their marriage intact. The two eventually divorced when Harry was six years old, leaving a strong impression on Harry and the other children. From this point on, Harry's brother Jim assumed in Harry's life the role of a father and guardian, offering an emotional outlet for Harry and his two younger brothers as well. Elspeth, who retained custody of her children, later remarried to a serious and strict man by the name of Henry Hart. Henry's attitude immediately clashed with the free-spirited Harry, and the two found themselves constantly at odds with one another. Henry was very demanding of his step-children, ordering them around and placing restrictions on their freedom. Often Harry would express his disapproval, and it was Jim, Harry's brother, who acted as the mediator in such situations. After living with under Henry's roof for seven years, up until the point he was seventeen, Harry came to resent the man, and at the same time came to yearn for more meaningful relationships. It was this period, many have said, that developed in Harry a hunger for love and acceptance that he eventually found on the concert Stage (Coan, 40)

Beyond Harry's immediate family, the extended family and their friends had a tremendous influence on the development of Harry's abilities and attitudes at a young age. Particularly important was a summer cottage owned by Kenneth Burke, Harry's grandfather which was called Andover, and provided a secluded natural environment for the family to gather during the Summer months. The house was located in a rural environment, one which Harry described as something out of Walden, where the family was free from the pressures and distractions of the outside world. Beyond the talents of his immediate family, the extended family on both his mother's and father's side was highly artistic and creative. As the came together in Andover during the summer, the house experienced a consistent traffic of people and ideas. Harry's other Grandfather, "Big Jim" Chapin, was a painter all his life, and gained a reputation from illustrating two of Robert Frost's books of poetry. He embodied the creative spirit, described as a man who possessed an innovative genius and with a certain child-like set of qualities. It was Big Jim who professed his material concerns being second to the ability to find something you truly enjoy doing and then working to do it better than anybody else.

Additionally, both of Harry's grandmothers played pivotal roles in Harry's development. They were both professional teachers, and treated their children and grandchildren with a great degree of respect. Big Jim's wife, Grandma Chapin, was a cheerful and outgoing woman, who believed in the best of everything and injected in Harry a strong sense of self-confidence. She repeatedly told Harry about the potential he possessed and consistently remained behind him as a strong supporter. It was with Grandma Lilly, Kenneth Burke's first wife, that Harry toured Europe with at age fifteen, expanding his horizons and spending quality time with another strong influence in his life.

There was also the influence of one of Kenneth Burke's other children, Michael, who in 1956 introduced Harry to folk music and the guitar, which quickly became a major force in the boy's life. While Harry's had grown up with a strong musical background, his exposure to the guitar peaked his interest. Given his previous musical training, the transition to guitar playing was relatively simple, and one of Harry's principal reasons for developing an interest in that instrument was because it was an easier was to get girls. Often during his high school years, Harry's love went unrequited, leaving him feeling unfulfilled and depressed. The guitar and folk music, in part, filled this void. Additionally, Harry's two younger brothers, Tom and Steve, developed the same interest in folk music at the same time Harry did, and the similar interests proved advantageous for the three brothers, who were still very close to one another. Throughout high school, they practiced with one another, eventually to play together a great deal in the future.

Harry's childhood seemingly came to an abrupt end at the age of seventeen, when a heated confrontation with his stepfather enraged Harry, causing him to leave the house never to return. He spent several months with other relatives, until eventually preparing to head of to college at Cornell University. Harry's early career interests at the university lead him not to the field of music, but toward architecture. Harry was always drawn to the act of creation, and in architecture, he felt as though he could satisfy this desire to be creative. Yet after a year and a half, he found the rigid structure of the discipline unsuited to his interest. The required focus on details was foreign to a man who dealt in a world of ambiguous concepts and ideas, and for this reason, harry abandoned the field of architecture.

Several years later, during the mid-sixties, Chapin would return to Cornell to study philosophy, in hopes of eventually earning a law degree. His interest declined, however, and ultimately he left that program as well. It was clear that Chapin did not adjust well to the life a college student. He simply could not conform to the restrictions placed on him by a formal education, and tried to find a means of success elsewhere.

Meanwhile, throughout his years in high school and college, Harry, along with his brothers Tom and Steve maintained a strong interest in folk music, practicing often and spending the summers when they were together playing as a trio for a summer camp in New York for underprivileged children. Music was becoming more familiar to Harry and as he continued, his talents developed. He began to write some of his own material, drawing from the work of popular folk musicians like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Even so, music still seemed to be unrealistic as a career for Chapin. His failed attempts at securing a college education were a source of depression for Chapin, he was uncertain about his future. His major problem was that he had a broad range of talents and Harry wasn't astonishingly above average at any single one. (Coan, 121)

It was during this period of college failures that and uncle of Harry's got him a job packing film crates. Though the work wasn't particularly challenging, Harry was excited about the opportunities to move quickly up through the film industry, especially for such an energetic and optimistic young man. Furthermore, Harry discovered that a potential career didn't require an ivy league education, and became less sensitive to his inabilities to succeed at Cornell. Harry, did in fact work his was through the film industry somewhat, eventually obtaining a position where he had the chance to edit film, from which he began a career in film editing that would remain with Chapin for several years. It was during this time that he experimented with and learned a great deal about cramming a large amount of material into about 15 minutes worth of film. He studied the characters of these film projects and with this knowledge, developed a resource that he used often when it came to the area of songwriting, particularly his own story-song method.

Chapin's film editing career continued to grow, and in 1965, Harry moved out to California to do some work with a film maker. He found life on the West Coast unfulfilling and dull and soon drove back East, returning to his interest in poetry to find emotional satisfaction. During the next several year, Harry would first play around with the lyric and narrative poems that became the precursors to his story-song creations. Additionally, he tried to reestablish himself in the band that he and his brothers played in during their college years. But after Harry's departure, the Tom and Steve continued with the band on their own, and found it difficult to allow Harry to play a part-time role in the band that they had rebuilt. Harry was in his mid-twenties and still very uncertain about a permanent career. He simply seemed to be drifting from one interest to another, at one point applying for a license to be a taxi driver in New York City. Though Harry experienced periods of depression during this time, he optimistic attitude and energy always seemed to pull him out of this states. His interest in film soon reemerged by the late sixties, and he set to work on a documentary profiling the lives of history's world boxing champions. The final creation was called "Legendary Champions", and was nominated for an academy award, coming in second place for the prize. The nomination foreshadowed the popular success Chapin would experience very shortly in the future, though in a completely different field.

During this period of time, from the end of high school, through the sixties, and up to his academy award nomination in 1969, Chapin was influenced by several key individuals in his life, many of whom later became immortalized in his songs. There was Clare MacIntyre, a woman whom Harry fell in love with after his first experience at Columbia. She was a highly ambitious and motivated woman who dreamed of being an actress. Seeing as how Harry's romantic relationships had gone unfulfilled up to that point, Clare served a fundamental purpose in Harry's life. She made Harry's life make sense, and the love he felt for her energized his creative nature, encouraging him to first try his hand at songwriting. The two spoke often about their dreams of becoming show business success stories, Harry in the music field, Clare as an actor. Clare's father, however, was very much a goal-oriented man and felt Harry was not the kind of man suited for his daughter. After two years of maintaining a close relationship, Clare traveled to Europe and then off to college in San Francisco. Both of these events lead Harry to believe that Clare's father had an interest in keeping him away from his daughter.

Shortly thereafter, while Harry was in the process of failing for his second time at Cornell, he met Jenny Gillette, whose care and kindness helped put Harry back together emotionally during one of the lowest points of his life. Though Harry entertained ideas of marrying Jenny, his hopes were dashed upon discovering that she had moved to Florida and married already. She died shortly after this as a result of a brain tumor, providing Harry with another experiential example of a sad love tale.

While he was in New York during the mid to late sixties, writing songs and performing them primarily to family and friends, Harry became acquainted with a some family friends named the Castro's, Janet and Manny. The two were appreciative and encouraging of Harry's music, and would often invite him over several times a week to play for a couple of hours in the evening. They instilled in Harry a sense of confidence when he was writing, and offered him the kind of support during this period of his life that he had trouble finding anywhere else. The response to his work was very important to Harry, and the Castro's always provided a comfortable, inviting and accepting environment for Chapin and his music.

Perhaps the strongest influence during this time was Sandy Cashmore, a married woman with three children whose marriage was falling apart and wanted to create a closer relationship with her children. She noticed Harry's name in the paper one day, advertising guitar lessons, and answered it, figuring that playing the guitar and singing would be a good way to strengthen the bond with her children. She called Harry, and after a while he would regularly come to her house to give lessons. During these meetings, a friendship developed and the two found each other sharing a great deal with one another. Meanwhile, Sandy's marriage continued to deteriorate to the point where the only solution in her mind was a divorce. She confronted her husband with these thought, and over time, he agreed that a divorce was perhaps best for the couple. They separated, and after avoiding Harry for several months, the two reestablished their friendship, acknowledged their love for one another and shortly thereafter, made plans to marry. With Harry still unestablished professionally, and Sandy retaining custody of her three children from her previous marriage, the two found it difficult at times, but managed. The two were married on November 26, 1968.

It was a year after this that Harry was nominated for the academy award, and with this accomplishment, he attained a level of recognition which granted him opportunities that never existed before. He began work on another film project, doing two documentaries for IBM, which netted him large sum of money which he put into savings. With this money, he was able to devote his energies to his passion, songwriting, which he did for his brother's band. During this time, Chapin was rapidly evolving his story-song format. Additionally, Harry was introduced to the business side of the music world, and gained experience that would be a tremendous asset in the future. By 1970, the brothers found Harry's role somewhat taxing on the band. They felt that if they were to write their own songs, they would generate a certain focus that would pull the group back together again.

Harry was disinterested in continuing his film career, so he kept writing songs and music, offering his performing services to his brothers as a solo opening act. It was here that Harry recognized the audience's preference for his story-songs. The small club crowds were increasingly interested in Harry's music and in some cases found his music more entertaining that the headlining band, Tom and Steve's group, "The Chapins". In return, Harry, found it easier to relate to the audiences, and with this a strong bond was beginning to form between a singer and his listeners. With interest growing, Harry pulled together three other musicians and formed a band of his own, winning over supporters and music critics with the emotional power of his live acts during the early 1970's. His music grew in popularity and over time, Chapin grew into the musical sensation that made his name nationally recognized. All along, Chapin was determined to make his musical career a success and consequently, paid attention to every detail. His success was truly a function of the effort he put into his work.

Unfortunately, very much like the situation he witnessed with his own parents in his childhood, Chapin saw his life on the road playing concerts taking a toll on his marriage. Instead of separating with Sandy, however, Harry was determined to revive his marriage. He did so by not only repairing his relationship with her, but also by redefining his whole value system. Sandy felt that popular music was a very self-serving industry and one's rising success should be tied to a heightened concern for specific humanitarian causes. Having spent some time in Ethiopia during his film career, Harry witnessed the starvation in that country firsthand, and as result of Sandy's advice, committed himself to the fight against world hunger. This commitment continued from the mid seventies until his death in a car accident in 1981. In that time, his actions as a lobbyist and financial contributions were more beneficial to his cause that the actions of anybody else.

Chapin's death signified the abrupt and tragic end to a life which had burgeoned in the previous decade and surely would have contributed a great deal more to humanity, had the accident not occurred. His efforts were acknowledged after his death in several ways. Memorial concerts, eulogies by prominent figures, including several Congressmen, and even the Congressional Medal of Honor were all bestowed upon Chapin posthumously. It was certainly testament to the fact that his short life was infinitely valuable to a world in need of such compassion, energy, and commitment.

In order to more fully comprehend the remarkable degree of Chapin's creative genius, one really needs to understand the nature of the domain which he worked in. The popular music industry in this country, particularly during the era of the 1970's when it was growing at a rapid rate, was a very competitive, unforgiving and unpredictable business. Some performers were fortuitous enough to rise to a superstar status literally overnight, while in the case of others, such success came only after a long arduous journey. Chapin was one of these artists, whose determination and energy more than anything had a profound effect on his success. In addition, popularity in this culture means being able to meet the public demand and sell records and concert tickets. While Chapin's live concerts were regarded by many as the best in the business, his recorded albums were not chart-topping sellers. Only a small handful of his songs were played on the radio for the simple reason that they didn't conform to the accepted style for such songs. This was a decision that Chapin made, conscious of the consequences. He knew that his story-songs, which required a sufficient amount of time, usually 6 to 7 minutes, to develop and resolve would not meet the requirements of radio stations. Though he personally encouraged them to play his music, he was fighting an uphill battle. Even so, Chapin remained faithful to his style, convinced that he was making music that both his listeners and he, himself, liked. Consistent with his personality, Chapin was rarely willing to compromise, and herein lies one of the greatest measures of his creativity.

In this biographical analysis, the many interrelated factors and influences of Harry Chapin's life are evident, and they all point to a creativity and a success that was generated from a multitude of inputs. It seems that in this sense, that Chapin is quite consistent with Gardner's model of creativity and creative genius - particularly if we view creativity as a new means of solving the worlds problems. Chapin's creativity occurred in cycles, with one major milestone occurring in 1967 with the development of his story-song style, and, not coincidently according to Gardner, another major milestone taking place around 1976, with the completion of perhaps his most comprehensive piece, an autobiographical song called "There Only Was One Choice". In it, Chapin mysteriously foretold of his tragic death at a young age:

When I started this song I was still thirty-three.
The age that Mozart died and Sweet Jesus was set free,
Keats and Shelly, too soon finished, Charlie Parker would be
And I fanaticized a tragedy be soon curtailing me.

He also included in the song, the lyrics which have come to define his life more than any other:

Inexperience - it once accursed me,
but your youth is no handicap, it's what makes you thirsty.

(From "Danceband on the Titanic" 1977)

Bibliography:

Coan, Peter M. Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story. New York:Carol Publishing Group. C. 1990.

Http://www.littlejason.com/chapin/longbio.html