How The Chapins Changed the World
By Steve Villano (Copyright, 2020)
“I believe in a God that gives hugs, “ Harry Chapin declared to his friend, colleague and former Catholic priest Bill Ayres. Harry acted that way, too—bounding unrestrained into any room, stretching his arms as wide as they could go—as if he could wrap them around enough people to pull them into the “circle” he created in song for his brother Tom’s television show, “Make A Wish.”
Chapin’s life was, at it’s core, a love story–a complicated, triangulated, convoluted, undisputed, multi-generational, non-denominational, big-brotherish, earth-motherish, Bohemian-maniacal, Yankee Puritanical, serendipitous, so ridiculous love story that it could just as well have been fiction, or the subject of one of Harry’s own story songs. But, it was a love story as real as life, with roots as deep as roots can reach, and lots of reminders that it happened, and was not just imagined.
It’s story that dates back decades, into generations and centuries, back in time before there was a country to be part of, or proud of, but not before there were some things that mattered so much, everything would be risked. It began, as many love stories do, with some headstrong romantic infatuated with the notion that, somewhere, there was a better life than the one he or she was living, and that something—anything—needed to be done to bring it about. That headstrong romantic was not Harry.
Unlike Frank Sinatra, who came from a family of poor immigrants, during a time of virulent anti-Italian and anti-immigrant fervor in the United States, Harry Chapin was born of American bluebloods—White Anglo Saxon Protestants who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony just two decades after the first African Slaves were dragged in chains to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The risk-taking romantic in the Chapin family was Harry’s great grandfather to the 9thgeneration, Deacon Samuel Chapin, who escaped England in the 1600’s with his wife and lover Cicely, to be free of religious persecution. Deacon Sam Chapin became one of the founders of Springfield, Mass., where—in one of the first colonies to abolish slavery in America—slaves knew they would find a welcoming haven, just across the border from Connecticut, an early slave-holding state.
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, who grew up in a working-class enclave of Freehold, New Jersey, or Elvis Presley, whose parents and grandparents were dirt poor in Tupelo, Mississippi, or Billy Joel, with whom he shared a musical legacy passed on by their fathers, the social, intellectual and political skills of Harry Chapin’s ancestors put them among the elite of American culture. To them, the Mayflower was a means of transportation, not an historic old New York hotel, nor a moving truck on US highways.
His maternal grandfather, Kenneth Burke, authored 15 books, and among students of language, was considering a literary and linguistic giant for most of the 20th Century. In 1981, the year Harry died, “KB”, as family members called him, won the National Medal for Literature, at 84 years old. Burke brought the practice of the literary & artistic salons, made famous by Virginia Wolfe and the Bloomsbury Writers in London, Gertrude Stein in Paris, or Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table in New York, out to a 165-acre family compound in Andover, New Jersey, he purchased with the proceeds from a $2800 literary prize he won in 1928. There he entertained writers, artists and philosophers from around the world, giving them space and freedom to work on their craft and discuss it, while he did the same. That kind of laboratory for creativity and learning, and a passion to do something that mattered, even if it didn’t pay well, was not lost on Harry Chapin, nor his brothers, who spent the endless summers of their youth barefoot and sometimes bare-bottomed in the Walden-like environment at Andover. In fact, it was KB’s daughter Eleanor’s husband, Ricky Leacock, the great documentary film maker and inventor of the art of Cinema Verite and a colleague of such giants of documentary filmmaking as D.A. Pennebaker and Albert & David Maysles , who perfectly captured the atmosphere of Andover in a short film featuring the young Chapin boys, and their male cousins, entitled The Barebottom Tribe. Few other families could boast that one of them was a legendary filmmaker making home movies, but that was the milieu in which the Chapins and the Burkes came of age.
During some of the most tumultuous times for intellectuals, writers and artists in the United States in the 1930’s, 1940’s and early 1950’s—at the peak of anti-Communist hysteria–Burke hosted writers like Malcolm Cowley, Jon Dos Passos, Shirley Jackson, and Ralph Ellison; poets William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings, and artists like Alexander Calder, and a local scenic and portrait painter and illustrator named James Ormsby Chapin, who did some design work for The Dial Magazine, which Burke edited.
Shortly before his book The Invisible Man was published (Random House, NY, 1952), Ralph Ellison sat on Kenneth Burke’s piano bench at the main house in Andover, and as KB’s son Michael Burke recalled, read excerpts from his incendiary book on race relations in the United States.
“Ellison sat on KB’s bench, and I was mesmerized as he read from the chapter where he described young Black men boxing bare-chested for the entertainment of the wealthy, White elite of the community, “ Michael Burke said.
Toward the end of the chapter, the winning Black boxers were forced to jump for coins tossed onto an electrified carpet by the inebriated, inhumane White men, who found entertainment in the young Black men’s suffering. Each coin the young Black athletes touched sent an electric shock through their bodies until, as Ellison read, “ I saw one boy…his back glistening with sweat like a circus seal…landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell and saw him literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by many flies.”
On other days, Michael Burke, who became like an older brother to Harry Chapin, would hear William Carlos Williams read his poetry, or use the hand-shaped, wire toilet-paper hold made by Alexander Calder, with the middle finger extended to hold the roll of paper. Andover, and the literary world Kenneth Burke nurtured, was a remarkable, Renaissance-like, place, and for the Chapin brothers it was an endless summer camp.
“It was an ever shifting feast of people, all kinds of people “ Princeton historian Sean Wilentz said of Andover, where he spent some time as a child. Wilentz, the author of books on Ronald Reagan, Andrew Jackson and five other history books—and one of the country’s foremost authorities on Bob Dylan (Bob Dylan in America, Anchor Books, NY, 2010)—grew up right behind the Chapin/Harts in Brooklyn. His family ran the 8th Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, and his father Elias Wilentz, who edited The Beat Scene—an early anthology of Beat poetry—was a drinking buddy of Kenneth Burke’s.
“There was a whirwind of activity there, “ Wilentz said, “and all of this was going on in this sylvan, beautiful rural atmosphere—in the middle of no where. It was a Bohemian, but very loving environment. In that family, everybody got divorced, but no one ever left. When you were welcomed in by them, you knew you were loved.”
Those “sylvan, beautiful rural” mountains of New Jersey also appealed to James Ormsby Chapin as an escape from the highly commercialized New York City art world, which he detested. A close friend of the poet Robert Frost’s for three decades, Harry’s paternal grandfather illustrated Frost’s first book of poetry, North of Boston, in 1917. The following year, in 1918, a serendipitous encounter on a NYC subway train between James Ormsby Chapin and his former high school teacher, Abigail Forbes, led to the two dramatically different personalities getting married.
Chapin not only did illustrations for Robert Frost and Kenneth Burke, he designed several covers for Time Magazine and become one of the most accomplished depression-era artists of his time, with his haunting depictions of people enduring the hardships of life, inspiring painters of the caliber of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. Decades later his grandson Harry would be so deeply influenced by his painting, that the younger Chapin’s story songs seemed as if they simply put lyrics to the lives of the beaten down individuals James Ormsby Chapin captured on his canvases. Many resembled the people Harry Chapin encountered years later in Flint, Michigan, when he gave benefit concerts there for Michael Moore’s Flint Voice, and may have explained the deep connection they felt for each other.
However, the marriage between the distinguished and proper Victorian schoolteacher, and the much younger bohemian artist was not nearly as enduring as James Ormsby Chapin’s art. Their marriage lasted only two years, with Abby Forbes giving birth to one son, James Forbes Chapin, who would later become the father of Harry Chapin, and his brothers James, Tom and Steven.
Serendipity seemed to be the stuff of life for the Burkes and Chapins. In the mid-to-late 1930’s, several years before Harry was born, James Ormsby Chapin took a teaching fellowship at the Summer Art Institute of Claremont College in Southern California. While there, he walked into a small sportswear shop and in another act of kismet similar to how he met Abby Forbes on the NYC subway, and how, years later, Harry would meet Sandy Gaston Cashmore when he showed up at the front door of a Brooklyn brownstone to give her guitar lessons, the talented portrait artist recognized the young, lithe Mary Fisher from one of his art classes and was smitten when he saw her amidst the delicate dresses she sold. He told Mary he wanted to paint her portrait, and by August, 1937, they were married in Pasadena, California.
The artist Chapin and his new wife, moved back east and into an old barn on Kenneth Burke’s sprawling Andover compound where they lived and Big Jim painted. When his grown son James from his marriage to Abby Forbes visited Big Jim and Mary at the Burke compound, James—already a musician at the age of 21–met Elspeth—Kenneth Burke’s eldest daughter—and they immediately fell in love, marrying in 1940.
Mary Chapin, in her unpublished diaries entitled “The Beginnings of Our Life Together,” chronicled the artists and writers who dropped in and out of Andover, and called life at the Burke compound “bliss.”
“In the mornings, everyone did his work,” Mary Chapin wrote. “The writers wrote, the painters painted, the comforters (mostly the women) prepared the creature comforts. Jim’s (Chapin’s) easel was set up in the open section of the barn.”
Then Mary, who would open a dress shop in New Jersey before taking off in 1968 to Canada with James Ormsby Chapin and their two sons Elliot and Jed who were avoiding the draft for the Vietnam War, located the thread which stitched all of the Burkes and Chapins together:
“In the case of the Burke household, not even the problem of the broken family was going to do them damage. In later years, I asked one of their young men how it happened that he had such strong family ties even with the families marital scrambling. He said that he felt as if he just had more people loving him. There was plenty of love.”
Harry Chapin was born into this fearlessly creative, loving, hippie-ish family in 1942—on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor—and was exposed, from his earliest years, to a world where wealth was measured in the richness of the writing, artistic work and the hurricane of ideas swirling around him, not in dollars. To create, was to be alive, and, with family, all that was necessary for success. The fundamental non-financial values of Harry’s family were not the same of Sinatra’s, Springsteen’s, Elvis’ or even Billy Joel’s, where daily economic survival was essential.
Billy Joel’s family background, for one example, was dramatically different from Harry’s, making it all the more remarkable that the two New York-born musicians shared the stage many times as performers, and shared much of the same working-class fan base. Born in Nuremberg, Germany, Joel’s father was one of only four Jews in his classroom, forced to sit apart from their classmates, and forbidden from using the public swimming pool. As circumstances for Jews in Germany became more dire in the 1930’s and Billy’s grandfather Karl Joel was arrested three times while being called the “Jew Joel,” a “bloodsucker,” and “oppressor,” young Helmut (Billy’s father, whose name would later be Americanized to Howard) was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland.
Meanwhile, Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda journal,continued its relentless name calling attacks on Karl Joel, labeling him the “Nuremberg Linen-Jew Joel,” and his thriving linen factory was taken from him at one-fifth its’ actual value.
“My grandparents fled in the night,” Billy Joel told his biographer, Fred Schruers in Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography (Crown/Archetype, NY, 2014) “ They used fake passports, and escaped across the Swiss border to Zurich.”
To get out of Europe alive, Billy Joel’s grandparents and his father “secured places aboard a cruise ship called the Andora Star, for a 1939 passage across the Atlantic to Cuba, where they resided for two years before the United States — strictly limiting the immigration of Jews to protect “the ideal of American homogeneity” — allowed them entry. Karl Joel’s brother Leon and his family were not so fortunate. They boarded the SS St.Louis, and after the Voyage of the Damned was refused entry in Havana and at every US Port, Billy Joel’s aunt, uncle and family were send back to Europe, and executed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Billy’s father, fluent in German and trained as a concert pianist, was drafted into the US Army in 1943, fighting in General George Patton’s Third Army. When Howard Joel’s battalion liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in April, 1945, he didn’t know that his relatives had been slaughtered at Auschwitz. Nor did he know that the black and white striped prison uniforms worn by many of the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps, had been manufactured by the Nazis at the linen-factory seized from his own father.
Unlike the joy and love of music conveyed to his sons by Jim Chapin, the drummer, Billy Joel’s father was overcome by painful memories each time he sat down at the piano to play.
“My father was classically trained in Germany, “ Billy Joel said. “I thought it was wonderful when he played the piano, but he was always frustrated, mad, angry. I thought if I could play like that, I’d be a happy guy. It had a profound influence on me.”
Harry Chapin, like Pete Seeger, had been blessed with a far simpler life, despite members of each of their families—including Seeger himself —being “Blacklisted” for their political activities by rabidly anti-Communist Right Wing public officials, stretching back almost 40 years when Seeger’s father, Charles, was forced out of the music department he established at the University of California at Berkeley because of his publicly professed pacifism toward World War I. Unknown to both the Seegers and the Burke/Chapins, Harry’s great Aunt Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers movement, was being physically attacked at roughly the same time Seeger’s father was bounced from Berkeley. A journalist who wrote for the Socialist and IWW (International Workers of the World) newspaper The NewYork Call, interviewed historic figures like Margaret Sanger and Leon Trotsky, and was close friends with the playwright Eugene O’Neill, Dorothy Day crusaded against American entrance into World War I, and in favor of Women’s Suffrage.
Day’s work on the movement to secure the right to vote for women nearly got her killed. She joined her friend Peggy Baird Johnson (who would later marry K.B’s best friend, the writer Malcolm Cowley) at a November 1917, Suffragette demonstration in Washington, DC, where Dorothy and Peggy would be arrested along with 46 others and jailed for 30 days. During their incarceration, Dorothy Day was nearly beaten to death by guards armed with billy clubs in “the worst and most brutal incident of the treatment of the suffragists, where they were dragged, kicked, trampled and choked,” according to Day’s youngest granddaughter, Kate Hennessey, in the comprehensive biography of her grandmother, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty (Scribner, NY, NY, 2017). Three years later, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, securing the right to vote for women.
By sharp contrast, Harry Chapin and Pete Seeger lived charmed lives. “ I was born into a very easy life in many ways,” Seeger said. “ My parents were professional musicians and when they split up I went to spend vacations with my grandparents who had a private house in the country.” It’s as if he was foreshadowing the path that awaited Harry Chapin.
While Harry’s grandfather Kenneth Burke was a music critic and understood all the elements of sound, orchestration and lyrics, and his “private house in the country” paralleled that of Pete Seeger’s grandparents, the most likely musical influence for Harry, Tom and Steve Chapin, was their father, Jim Chapin, who became a top drummer with some of the leading musicians of his time, including the Glenn Grey Orchestra and Tony Pastor. He taught and wrote books on drumming, most notably Advanced Techniques for the Modern Drummer, Volumes I & II, which became, and remains, the essential professional instruction book for most modern drummers, a decade after Jim Chapin’s death in 2009.
In fact, Howie Fields, the drummer who joined Harry’s musical troupe for his Broadway show in 1975 (The Night That Made America Famous) stayed with him through his death, and still performs with the Chapin Family Band all over the country, said he knew of the teaching and musical artistry of the drummer Jim Chapin, before he ever heard of Harry. While his drumming Techniques book became world famous, Jim Chapin did not, missing some opportunities to play with the biggest bands of his time.
“Dorsey (Tommy Dorsey) didn’t like his foot,” said Harry’s younger brother Tom, flashing a sweet smile at the memory of his father. “He didn’t hit the base drum hard enough.”
Much later, Tom Chapin would say that his father’s example “provided the joy of music. He was a fun, attractive guy who loved to play. We’d see him on weekends, and the sense of possibility (of a musical career) was there.”
Jim Chapin’s obsession with his music kept him away from his wife Elspeth, and their four sons, and that, as well as his love for other women, contributed to their divorce when Harry was only 6 years old. As if to compensate for her son’s failure to support his, now four, young boys and wife, Harry’s paternal grandmother, Abby Forbes, not only provided financial help to the family, but paid for music lessons for all four boys at the Greenwich House Music School in NYC. With Abby’s help and the guidance of Elspeth and her mother Lily Batterham Burke, the boys became involved in the Grace Church Episcopal Choir in Brooklyn, among NYC’s finest boys’ choirs, where John Wallace—one of Harry’s longtime band members with a magnificent voice and musical range—also sang. After memorizing every song on “TheWeavers at Carnegie Hall” album, the Chapin Brothers performed their first number in public: Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land—a rendition rousingly received, propeling them to perform at churches and schools across Brooklyn.
They were carrying on a tradition of folk music that began with Guthrie, was nourished by Pete Seeger with, first the Almanac Singers (the group which Guthrie helped found in 1940), than the Weavers. The first time the Chapins heard the music of The Weavers was at Andover, on an old victrola owned by their Aunt Eleanor “Happy” Leacock. “Happy,” the wife of documentary film maker Ricky Leacock, was one of the first woman in the nation to chair an Anthropology Department at a major University (City University of New York). She was also an open and avowed Marxist, who pioneered the field of gender studies decades before Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem burst onto the scene in sociology. She was put on an FBI watch-list after she and KB traveled to a performance of Blacklisted singer Paul Robeson in Peekskill, NY, that ended with anti-Robeson protestors—armed with everything but MAGA hats–stoning the cars of concertgoers, with Happy and KB hearing rocks richocheting off the roof of their car.
The influence or the Chapin/Burke families—and their enormous circle of friends, fellow artists, academics and activists– never stopped. It was all enveloping; some might say incestuous. It was Harry’s uncle/cousin Michael Burke—KB’s son by his second wife, Libby Batterham (Lily’s sister)—who turned Harry on to the acoustic guitar and challenged him to songwriting contests to see who could come up with the best song in the shortest time. And, when Harry, Steve & Tom played as The Chapins in clubs like the Bitter End and the Bottom Line around New York in the mid-to-late 1960’s, their father Jim joined them on the drums, keeping their music a full family affair for a while, underscoring the musical tradition into which the Chapin sons were born.
Michael Burke, a Harvard-trained architect who became an early environmental advocate, would later go on to design three of Harry Chapin’s Albums (The Road to Kingdom Come, Dance Band on the Titanic, & Legends of the Lost and Found) during the 1970’s. Michael’s graceful, long and winding lines, closed out corners of the circle that began when Harry’s paternal grandfather, James Ormsby Chapin, first did some illustrations for the magazine edited by Michael’s father, Kenneth Burke.
Harry reciprocated by writing two songs for and about Michael, who had become like a loving, older brother to him. The songs, “Paint a Portrait for Me, Michael,” and “The Rock,” which tells the story of a scientist who tries to warn his town of its’ imminent destruction by a huge boulder—a force of nature—precariously perched above it. The song was a metaphor not only for Michael’s brilliance in several fields, and his being far ahead of his time concerning climate change, but a prophetic tale of Harry’s own Sisyphean task of alerting the world to the massive scourge of poverty and food insecurity, and the urgency do something about it. The loud and insistent warnings about climate change and income inequality were decades ahead of their time. Harry’s own early clues about poverty and hunger came from the brilliant work of a friend of his politically astute oldest brother James, who was active in the Democratic Socialists of America. James Chapin, who would serve as Harry’s political guru and advisor throughout his lifetime, was friends with Michael Harrington, a fellow DSA member, whose book The Other America ((Penguin Books, NY, NY, 1962) grabbed the attention of President John F. Kennedy, and became the blueprint for the War on Poverty, and later, one of the inspirations for the Chapin family’s lifelong fight against poverty and food insecurity, which began with Harry and Bill Ayres, in the mid-1970’s.
Born to privilege and into a family of thinkers and artists, Harry felt compelled to do something about the promise of what he believed America was supposed to be for others not as lucky as he and his brothers. His unapologetic patriotism, and unfettered sense of fairness, would, at roughly the same age, lead him to take the same approach Frank Sinatra took in 1945, at age 30.
Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, into a struggling Italian family of immigrants—less than an hour from the Andover compound where the Burkes and Chapins would congregate. Hoboken was, as Pete Hamill wrote in his masterpiece Why Sinatra Matters, “ not a story of unrelieved misery. The core of the immigration myth is this: it was about the way people overcame misery, how they found their consolation and in the end, how they redeemed America in a time when America believed it was not in need of redemption.”
“Harry gave away more than he got, “ said Billy Joel, in an interview in his motorcyle shop in the heart of the Village of Oyster Bay, not far from where the Chapins lived in Huntington. “ He concentrated on helping people, whenever he could, giving his money away to other people, for a cause. He had so much talent, and he used it for other people, not for his own gain.”
“We need Harry now more than ever,” Joel said. “In this era of Trump when it’s all about greed, all about selfishness, he’d be nudging the hell out of me, out of everyone, to get involved.”
Pete Hamill, in his remarkable book about Frank Sinatra, writes how Sinatra’s “music was the engine of his life.” Not so, for Harry Chapin. He was the engine of his life, and of the lives of many others.
“Having Harry for a brother was like having a steam engine for a brother, “ said his oldest brother James Chapin, during Harry’s memorial service at Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, in 1981, acknowledging the effect he had on everyone who came in contact with him. He would never take “no” for an answer, had boundless energy, and was as relentless in fighting for his social and political causes as he was in pursuing his musical career.
Yet, his music and his life as an artist, in a family of artists, mattered to Harry as much as his activism and citizenship did. Harry Chapin’s great gift was to merge the many parts of himself–artist, activist, decent human being, brother, father, citizen–into a sort of one-man movement—“a movement among movements” to paraphrase the great social activist and food insecurity guru Frances Moore Lappe, whose first book, Diet for A Small Planet (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971) had a profound influence on Harry’s thinking about poverty, hunger, income inequality, and the politics of social change, and whose second book Food First, was funded with a starter grant from Harry.
“He wanted to change the world,” said Big John Wallace, his longtime guitarist, fellow singer, and childhood friend dating back to the Grace Episcopal Church Choir, where they first sang together. “And he did.”