Those who know me know I’m a longtime fan of Harry Chapin, both the man and the musician. I’ve written about his life and work a couple of times, and I always commemorate his birthday (December 7, 1942) and the day he died (July 16, 1981) on Facebook, posting quotes, lyrics, YouTube videos of his songs, and links to WhyHunger and the Harry Chapin Foundation. Because people know this, they forward me things that cross their path.
Recently, our own Greg Hatcher sent me a link to a new documentary about Harry; when I mentioned that I’d seen it, he suggested a review, and when I mentioned that there are also a couple of new books out, he suggested a round-up review. See, Greg is smarter than me and he thinks of things like this. So here we go.
First up is the movie, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something,” the title taken from one of Harry’s favorite mottoes. You can buy or rent the film as a digital download, or buy it on DVD. They found a lot of great footage and interesting interviews. I really enjoyed it. Take a look at the trailer and see if it catches your attention.
And then there are the books…
For a long time there was very little information about Harry available, until about 20 years ago, when an unauthorized biography was published, which I’m not linking to here, because (a) it isn’t very good, and (b) Harry’s family doesn’t like it. The book had what I can only describe as a “tabloid” sensibility to it, recounting events of Harry’s life in the kind of leering tones one would expect from TMZ. The trouble with warts-and-all biographies is they tend to be much more interested in the warts than anything else, becoming warts-and-nothing-but stories, and this one was no exception. I don’t expect a sanitized hagiography, but you don’t have to be gross about it. But anyway, for a couple of decades, that was all we had. Finally, a couple of other (better) authors have taken up the challenge, so now there are two new biographies to tell Harry’s story.
Author Michael Francis Taylor takes a unique approach to telling the story of Harry’s life; it’s structured around his discography, going in chronological order from his teen years performing with his brothers Tom and Steve during the folk singer craze of the late 1950s and early ’60s, up through the posthumous albums made up of unfinished songs and some long-unheard concert recordings. It’s mostly an oral history built from interviews and public statements from a large number of Harry’s friends, family, fellow activists and performers, as well as comments from members of the Harry Chapin Memories and Harry Chapin Fans forums on Facebook. Using contemporaneous anecdotes to accompany passages from the lyrics and behind-the-scenes information about the recording of each song, the author weaves a comprehensive story that’s equally interesting for those just discovering Chapin as well as the fans looking for another new tidbit.
I haven’t read this book yet, but I have read some of the author’s posts that it’s based on. Ira Kantor writes for a site called VintageRock.com, and one of his projects there is a 10-part biography of Chapin. I don’t know how much more information the book contains, but the web series is excellent.
Here’s a cute children’s book illustrating the lyrics to one of Harry’s classic “story songs.” Mr. Tanner, owner of a dry-cleaning store in Dayton, Ohio, is also a singer. After years of performing at local shows, his friends convince him to try for the big time: a concert in New York City.
Harry based this song on a review he read in the New York Times following a performance by a singer named Martin Tubridy. Decades later, Tubridy discovered that he had inspired a song. He has performed it with Harry’s band at benefit concerts for the Chapin Foundation.
We’ll finish with some music. You can get Harry’s albums at HarryChapinMusic.com, but here are a couple of fairly recent releases.
Recorded at a radio station in Germany during one of Harry’s tours, this is an intimate concert for a small audience, which is really where Harry Chapin was at his best. His other live albums, Greatest Stories Live and Legends of the Lost and Found, are actually hybrids of live and studio recordings, expertly mixed to give the impression of a concert experience, but they were also recorded in venues like LA’s Greek Theater, before audiences of 5000 or more. Sitting on his stool with only a few dozen people listening attentively, his emotional lyrics, impassioned singing, his easy banter with the band and natural storytelling ability are on full display. Any Harry fan will tell you that his live performances far outshine his studio recordings, and this is a great example.
The Bottom Line is a legendary venue in Greenwich Village, and it’s where Harry played his 2000th concert in January of 1981. This 3-CD collection includes recordings of two concerts. The Bottom Line only seated 400, so this sits nicely in between the Bremen show and Greatest Stories Live.
One more thing. Whether you discover Harry Chapin here, or you’re a longtime fan, remember that he gave away half his income over the course of his tragically short career, playing, as Bruce Springsteen quoted him, “one night for me, and one night for the other guy.” With that in mind, pop on over to WhyHunger or The Harry Chapin Foundation and make a donation.
If you want one, here’s a pretty cool t-shirt. I know, because I designed it. It is fully authorized by the Harry Chapin Foundation and two of Harry’s children, endorsed by the photographer who took the original, and 100% of the proceeds of every sale goes to the Harry Chapin Foundation to support Harry’s causes.
“If man tried to take his time on earth, and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth, well I wonder what would happen to this world?”