"If you don't act like hope, there ain't no hope"There have been few musicians and artists as committed to social and political activism as Harry Chapin. He did not just talk and pontificate like many contemporary musicians about poverty and hunger. He was both a committed activist and a musician dedicated to campaigning against poverty, hunger and injustice. One did not exist without the other. Chapin gave much of his money away to civil society causes and donated over a third of his paid concert earnings to civil society groups and charities.
I was a huge fan of Harry Chapin and can still remember the time and place when I heard he had died, aged just 38, in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway in 1981. It was late at night and I was living in a small apartment in South Perth with my then partner. She had gone to bed and after hearing of his death I lay in the darkness crying for the loss of a fine musician and political activist.
Chapin was best known for songs such as Cats in the Cradles (which was a number one hit that made him wealthy), WOLD and Taxi. During the mid 1970's at a time when much music revolved around short pop songs with meaningless lyrics, Chapin recorded long narrative ballads, some longer than 10 minutes, that told stories about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, about the social and political events of the day and the angst and struggles of human existence. Hardly the stuff of commercial and critical success.
Chapin began his career as documentary film maker and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 and an Emmy Award. Perhaps reflecting his experience as a documentary film maker Chapin wrote what he called "story songs"- songs that told stories, often based on his own life experience or that of people he knew. Chapin's songs were often dark and bittersweet.
The song Taxi tells of his experience as taxi driver who picks up a former lover. After they recognize each other the song contrasts their hopes and dreams when they were young lovers with the disappointments and harsh realities of their lives now.
In Sniper Chapin tells the story of Charles Whitman who in 1966 climbed a bell tower at the University of Texas and shot 47 people before Police shot him. The song is 10 minutes long and Chapin tells the story from multiple perspectives- the Police, the sniper Charles Whitman, the victims, the media and acquaintances of Whitman.
In Why do Little Girls Chapin was one of the first male singer songwriters to critique the double standards involved in the way society treated young men compared to young women.
The Shortest Story is about a child dying of hunger. The song brings together Chapin's activist commitment to the elimination of hunger and his musical style of documenting and telling stories through songs. The song has been described as the saddest song ever written.
"I am born today, the sun burns its promises in my eyes;Chapin often played 300 concerts a year, over half of them to raise money for activist and charitable causes. Although his earnings from music totaled millions Chapin gave much of his money away to support causes and campaigns, leaving himself and his family with little. Chapin supported hundreds of charities by doing benefits and donating his own money. In the last few years of his life Chapin raised over $3million to support civil society organizations. Many of those organizations still exist today.
Mama strikes me and I draw a breath and cry.
Above me a cloud softly tumbles through the sky;
I am glad to be alive.
It is my seventh day, I taste the hunger and I cry;
my brother and sister cling to Mama's side.
She squeezes her breast, but it has nothing to provide;
someone weeps. I fall asleep.
It is twenty days today, Mama does not hold me anymore;
I open my mouth but I am too weak to cry.
Above me a bird slowly crawls across the sky;
why is there nothing now to do but die"
Chapin made it his mission as both a citizen and musician to end poverty and hunger in the USA and globally. He was a tireless advocate and activist for the poor, the hungry and the disadvantaged. As an activist he argued that hunger existed not from a lack of food, but from structural causes and the lack of political will to address the problem. Chapin was one of the early advocates to focus on the political power of multinational corporations and the need for basic land reform to address hunger and poverty. Chapin lobbied and cajoled the Carter Government to establish the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and co founded World Hunger Year (now Why Hunger).