Harry Chapin & JFK, Jr: 38 years of Inspiration; Lives Worthy of Imitation.
By Steve Villano,
They were always there, right in front of me: Harry Chapin, and John F. Kennedy, Jr., linked in death on the same exact date — July 16.
They died 18 years apart, their age difference, when they were both killed in terrible accidents at 38 years old.
Chapin’s brief, shooting-star-of-a-life ended in the fiery crash of a small car on the Long Island Expressway; JFK, Jr.’s, in the crash of a small aircraft, somewhere off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
They were brothers in death, but their families — guided by strong women — and their mutual lust for life were intertwined in ways that one of Harry Chapin’s five children, Jason, would come to experience first-hand, in his work directly with JFK, Jr. and his “Reaching Up” non-profit organization.
The son of President John F. Kennedy founded “Reaching Up” in 1989—eight years after Harry Chapin died– to give greater access to higher education and training to healthcare givers working with individuals with disabilities.
The organization’s work not only enlarged the scope of the Special Olympics founded by JFK, Jr’s Aunt Eunice Shriver, but it also shared the compassion and common sense of the life-saving work done by a national non-profit co-founded by singer/songwriter Harry Chapin at the peak of his fame — WhyHunger — still tackling food insecurity in local communities 46 years after it was formed, as well as providing job skills to lift people out of poverty. Chapin and Kennedy were answering similar calls to serve others.
Jason Chapin, who worked with Governor Mario M. Cuomo and was elected to two, four-year terms on the New Castle Town Council in Westchester, County, NY, has, along with his four siblings, carried on his father’s work for WhyHunger and local food banks since 1975. He is the only Chapin to know JFK, Jr., and work with the “Reaching Up” organization and its City University of New York partner (CUNY) from 1995 to 2001.
“John was extremely passionate and dedicated to the organization, “ Jason Chapin said. “ I will always remember our Board Meetings which John chaired. He politely greeted everyone in the room when he arrived. He attended all of the annual Reaching Up Kennedy Fellows Convocations and was very friendly with the Fellows.”
It was precisely the same way JFK, Jr., greeted me at an early 1996 non-profit breakfast at New York’s Plaza Hotel which I attended as a guest of Jason Chapin’s. I was representing Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, and wearing a “We Believe in Brooklyn” button to boost Brooklyn’s visibility among the Manhattan political and media elite. JFK, Jr., who sat a few seats away from me at the circular table, spotted my button as soon as we got seated. He leaned over to me and whispered.
“My family believes in Brooklyn, too,” JFK, Jr. said. “We believe deeply in the Bed Stuy Redevelopment Project,” an important initiative started during the too short Senate term of his uncle, Robert F. Kennedy, when he was NY’s U.S. Senator, from 1965–68.
What JFK, Jr., may not have known then was how important Jason Chapin’s grandfather, John Cashmore, was to his own father’s election as President of the United States in 1960. Cashmore, Brooklyn Borough President from 1940–1961, delivered 66% of Kings County’s vote to JFK, helping him beat Nixon in New York State by five percent, and win NY’s 45 electoral votes, giving Kennedy the 303 Electoral votes he needed to win the Presidency.
I told JFK, Jr. how important the BedStuy project was to Central Brooklyn, the community served by our public hospital, and how important his own father’s example of public service was to me in guiding my life’s work.
“You probably get tired of hearing that from so many people of my generation,” I said to JFK, Jr.
“I never get tired of hearing it,” he said. “It makes me proud to see how many people my father inspired.”
Over the more than three decades I’ve known Jason Chapin, I’ve heard him say, with unending politeness and grace, the exact same words about his father, when people tell him Harry Chapin inspired them to commit their lives to fighting poverty, or improving public health, or helping refugees find access to food or shelter.
“I’m always amazed by how many people my father reached, how many lives he touched,” Jason says again and again.
Harry Chapin, like the Kennedys, was not content to sit still, and unafraid to use his celebrity to do good, performing 2000 concerts during his 10-year music career, with half of them as benefits, raising more than $6 million to fight hunger, and millions more on his radio “Hungerthons” with WhyHunger co-founder Bill Ayres, a former Catholic priest who Marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963—to pressure JFK, Jr’s father to pass Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation.
As with JFK, Jr., Chapin was encouraged to take his activism, courage and compassion full-time to Washington, and run for the U.S. Senate from New York.
Harry recognized, as JFK, Jr., did with the creation of “Reaching Up” in 1989, that his name attached to any project could attract politicians, the media, the public and funding to the cause.
His crusade against hunger and poverty, and his successful campaign to create a Presidential Hunger Commission with the help of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT.) and President Jimmy Carter, exhibited the same instincts that propelled JFK, Jr., to launch “Reaching Up” and George Magazine: they both knew that politics and pop culture had merged, and that those in a position to use their fame to improve human existence, and to demonstrate their love for life, had a responsibility to do so.
Now, 40 years after Harry Chapin’s death and 22 years after JFK, Jr’s—both on July 16—their lessons of lending their celebrity, and giving their lives, to improving the lives of others, are more crucial than ever before. We need more public-spirited, fearless human beings like Harry Chapin and JFK, Jr., and to turn their inspiration into action.
(It’s fitting that the largest tax credit in US History—a monthly payment for children (childtaxcredit.gov), which will lift one-half of America’s children out of poverty—is being implemented this week, which also marks the 40th Anniversary of Harry Chapin’s death. Chapin– inspired by his older brother James; the great anti-poverty champion and author of The Other America Michael Harrington; Harry’s spouse & partner Sandy Chapin; and his friend and former Catholic priest Bill Ayres, who followed the progressive Catholic Worker teachings of Harry’s great aunt, Dorothy Day—devoted the last decade of his life to fighting hunger and reducing poverty. The organizations which Harry Chapin founded, from WHYHunger to Harry Chapin Food Banks across the nation, continue to serve those most in need, four decades after Chapin’s death. The work of those anti-poverty organizations, and the extraordinary dedication of the Chapin family has carried forward Harry’s hope, and given his social justice work a life that is now longer than the time on earth enjoyed by the singer/songwriter.)
When Tom Chapin, the younger brother closest in age to Harry, got a call on that July day in 1981, from the Nassau County, NY, cop who recovered Harry’s charred body near the Jericho exit of the busy Long Island Expressway (Interstate 495), he knew something wasn’t right.
“What’s your relation to the deceased?” the police office asked.
Tom was taken aback. “ Deceased?”
Someone had died in a terrible car accident on the L.I.E. and his wallet was incinerated, destroying all of the victim’s ID.
“We have a body here, and the only way we can identify it is by this pocket watch we found on him with a name inscribed on it,” the Nassau County Cop said.
“What does it say, “ Tom asked, fearful that he already knew.
“It says: “From the Flint Voice. To a great American, Harry Chapin,” the cop said.
Tom Chapin felt as if he had been punched in the stomach, and that the world stopped. He knew that Harry always carried a cherished pocket watch given to him by Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, before Moore made any films or was known beyond Flint, Michigan.
As a pushy 22-year old, Moore had thrust himself into Harry’s face backstage at intermission of a 1976 Grand Rapids, Michigan concert, begging Chapin to do a benefit for his fledgling, muckraking publication, the Flint Voice.
“He said, ‘sure,’ I’ll do it,” Moore told a crowd at the Huntington, N.Y., Book Review bookstore in October, 2011, some 30 years after Chapin’s death, “and two months later he came to Flint to do a benefit concert for us. Harry came for five years, every year — even when Flint was down and out — sometimes doing two to five concerts a year. When Harry died it sent shock waves through the people of Flint because we kind of adopted him.”
What Moore didn’t learn, until years later, was that it was the inscribed pocket watch he gave to Harry Chapin out of gratitude for his generosity, that enabled his brother Tom to identify the body.
Chapin’s simple act of human connection, of wanting to improve life for the people of Flint, Michigan; his great act of love for a cause championed by another idealistic organizer, and his spirit of making the world a bit better, had survived the fire, even though his body had not. It was a metaphor for how Harry’s social justice work lived on, longer than his 38 years on earth.
“Yes,” Tom said to the cop after he finished reading the inscription on the pocket watch. “I’m Harry Chapin’s brother.”
“Then you may want to come down to the Nassau County Medical Center and identify the body,” the cop said.
The shock of Harry’s death spread slowly, stubbornly, with each call Tom Chapin made, as if, not even the truth could believe itself.
Family and friends flocked to the Chapin home in Huntington Bay, to be with Sandy Chapin and her children — the youngest of whom, Jason, Jen and Josh, were 17, 10 and 8 ½ years old.
Fans flooded the band shell at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow for a benefit concert to fight hunger that Harry Chapin was scheduled to give that same night, refusing to leave for hours, refusing to believe that the news they heard was real.
The day after Harry’s death, thousands of people spontaneously showed up in downtown Flint, Michigan, to pay their respects to someone who’s “greatest gift and the curse he lived with was that he always cared,” about them, and people like them—a lyric Harry prophetically wrote about folk singer Phil Ochs, who killed himself in 1976.
The profound and prolonged reaction to Harry Chapin’s sudden death, and the work of WHYHunger and Harry Chapin Food Banks around the country over the next four decades to pull people out of poverty and make millions of families less food insecure, was, and continues to be, a reminder of why Harry’s life mattered, well beyond his music.
Yet, performing artists like Billy Joel, considered a consummate musician and songwriter who has received every conceivable musical honor, along with selection into the Rock & Roll and the Songwriters’ Halls of Fame, had the highest praise for Harry’s artistry, as well as his activism.
“He wrote the best story songs,” said the singer/songwriter from Hicksville, Long Island, who wrote some pretty good songs himself. “ A lot of people said to me, ‘you wrote Piano Man?’I thought it was a Harry Chapin song.”
A slight grin brightened Billy Joel’s face, in the sunny front section of his motorcycle shop in the Village of Oyster Bay, Long Island.
“No I wrote that, I would say. Harry’s songs were about human beings, humanity. Whether his career was big enough, that’s not important. It was his impact.And he had an impact upon other songwriters that was all positive, all to the good,” said Billy Joel.
For Harry Chapin, as it was for one of his heroes, Pete Seeger, commitment to a cause, to his family and his craft, made his life full. Bruce Springsteen, who raised $2 million last December to fight food insecurity at the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, has picked up the musician’s mantle of social justice leadership carried by Chapin, Seeger, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Chilean folksinger Victor Jara and many others over the decades.
In his comments at the December 7, 1987, Carnegie Hall Tribute where Harry Chapin was posthumously awarded a Special Congressional Gold Medal for his Humanitarian work — only the fourth musician in US history to ever be so honored, along with Irving Berlin and George & Ira Gershwin — Springsteen talked about the legacy of an activist artist like Chapin.
“ Harry instinctively knew it would also take more than love to survive,” he said, before singing a haunting rendition of Chapin’s song Remember When, “it was going to take hard work, with a good, clear-eye on the dirty ways of the world.”
In his own autobiography Born to Run: Bruce Springsteen(Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, NY, 2016, by Bruce Springsteen) Springsteen writes about his own “clear-eyed look at the dirty ways of the world,” after beginning his work with food banks and anti-poverty groups around the country in the mid-1980’s, following Harry’s death:
“I never had the frontline courage of many of my more committed musical brethren. If anything, over the years, too much has been made of whatever service we’ve provided. But I did look to develop a consistent approach. Something I could follow year in and year out, and find a way to assist the folks who’d been hit hardest by systematic neglect and injustice. These were the families who’d built America and yet whose dreams and children were, generation after generation, considered expendable. Our travels and position would allow us to support, at the grassroots level, activists who dealt, day to day, with the citizens who’d been shuffled to the margins of American life.” (P. 328).
At the Carnegie Hall Chapin Tribute concert in 1987, Springsteen acknowledged that Harry was one of those with such relentless “front-line courage.”
In fact, Harry was living the line he wrote in his own story song “The Parade’s Still Passing By” about Phil Ochs, the Civil Rights activist and anti-war folk singer who rivaled Bob Dylan for a time in the 1960’s, and killed himself in 1976, at the age of 35: “your greatest gift and the curse you lived with was that you could always care.”
Ochs had traveled to Hazard, Kentucky, to perform for the families of striking coal miners in 1963; to Mississippi in 1964 as part of the Caravan of Music to support the Freedom Fighters throughout the South; to Chicago, in the summer of 1968, to participate in demonstrations against the War in Vietnam at the Democratic National Convention; and to Chile, in 1971, following the election of Democratic Socialist President Salvador Allende to perform with the great Chilean political activist and folksinger, Victor Jara, who was executed four days after Allende was assassinated by Right Wing fascists, in 1973.
Och’s motivating mantra (There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs,by Michael Schumacher, University of Minnesota Press edition, Minneapolis, MN, 2018) could have been written by Harry Chapin, especially since both devoted significant portions of their careers, and earnings, to fighting poverty:
“ I have come to believe that this is, in essence, the role of the folksinger…I feel that the singer almost has a responsibility with political and social involvement. You can’t look at folk music as simply an element of show business, because it’s much deeper and more important than that.”(p. 74)
Harry’s cauldron of creativity and his own curse — similar to, but far more lasting that Phil Ochs’ — was the degree to which he cared about others, how much he desperately drove himself, how deeply he believed in things, and how determined he was to make his time on earth matter, and prove before he died—and for decades after—how much one person’s life could be worth.
The Chapin Family Legacy of Love, Letters, Art, Music and Activism.
By Steve Villano, Chpt. 2
Harry 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 a 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 ninth generation, Deacon Samuel Chapin, who escaped England in the 1600’s with his wife and lover Cicely, to be free from 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.
Harry’s maternal grandfather, Kenneth Burke, authored 15 books, and among students of language, was considered 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—still used by the Chapin family– 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 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 Red-baiting and 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 Manwas 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, young 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 wrote, “ 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 nowhere. 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.
James Ormsby 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 later, Harry’s mother — 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. To the Burkes and the Chapins, money really didn’t matter.
Harry Chapin, like Pete Seeger, had been blessed with a simple, carefree 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. Seeger’s own 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. Forced out of Berkeley for being a pacifist.
At virtually the same moment Charles Seeger was being booted from Berkeley in 1917, Harry’s great Aunt Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers movement, was being physically attacked for her work in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. 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 her 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.
In sharp contrast to their ancestors, 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.
Jim Chapin’s drumming Techniques book became world famous, but his musical career 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.
But, 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.
Harry’s early insights about poverty and hunger came from the brilliant work of Michael Harrington, a friend and colleague of his politically astute oldest brother James, who was active in the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington’s book, The Other America detailing extensive poverty and hunger in the US (Penguin Books, NY, 1962) seized the nation’s attention when it was published, especially that of President John. F. Kennedy. The book became the blueprint for JFK’s—and later LBJ’s–War on Poverty. It also served as one of the inspirations for the Chapin family’s lifelong fight against poverty and food insecurity. James Chapin, Harry’s oldest brother, would serve as Harry’s political guru and advisor throughout his lifetime and steered him toward making a difference on a single, significant social issue.
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 fortunate as the Chapins. 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 toward civil and human rights.
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. Pete Hamill, in his remarkable book about Sinatra entitled Why Sinatra Matters, writes how “music was the engine of Sinatra’s life.” Not so, for Harry Chapin. He was the engine of his own life.
““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.
“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. “Today, when it’s all about greed, all about selfishness, he’d be nudging the hell out of me, out of everyone, to get involved.”
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 the Chapin family’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 Brooklyn’s Grace Episcopal Church Choir, where they first sang together.
40 Years After His Death, Harry Chapin Matters More Than Ever
By Steve Villano,
(Copyright, 2021, Part I)
(40 years ago next week, singer/songwriter/activist Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident on the Long Island Expressway. He was 38 years old.
In addition to recording 12 Albums, and performing some 2000 concerts over a 10-year career, Chapin co-founded the International world hunger organization, WHYHunger, with former Catholic Priest and social justice advocate Bill Ayres. That really wasn’t too much of a surprise since Harry’s great aunt was Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, and a force in progressive social action.
Working with Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and President Jimmy Carter, Harry Chapin pushed hard for the creation of the first—and only—Presidential Commission on Hunger in US History in 1980. It still stands as the only such undertaking.
With WHYHunger—46 years after it’s founding—still fighting hunger and the broader issues of poverty and income inequality, and Harry Chapin Food Banks feeding tens of thousands of Americans across this nation—Chapin’s music, his messages of social justice, and his work for social change are more important and relevant today than they have ever been.
Over the coming days and weeks, much will be written, televised and performed about the music, life and work of Harry Chapin. Concerts by Chapin family members will be held in towns and villages across the country, and on-line. Perhaps one of the most moving tributes, is the documentary film: “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something.” The unique, social conscious documentary, on which I was privileged to work, was produced, written and directed by Rick Korn, S.A. Baron and one of Harry’s sons, Jason Chapin.
This article, the first of several installments , was written as a compliment to that documentary, which can be directly accessed in full by going to HarryChapinMovie.com. It is carried on ITunes, YouTube, Amazon Video, Fandango Now and Google Play.)
When Harry Chapin was killed in a motor vehicle accident on the Long Island Expressway, July 16, 1981, the news was slow to spread.
It wasn’t like when Elvis died four years earlier, nor when John Lennon was assassinated only seven months before, on December 9, 1980, just two days after Harry Chapin’s 38th and final birthday.
Then, the news of the deaths of those legends travelled at the speed of sound, like giant trees falling in the center of media forests. Everyone knew instantly. The whole world went dark for a time, as if someone pulled out the plug.
Despite their similarities of age, Elvis was 42, and Lennon, 40, Chapin’s musical career never came near those heights, with Cats in the Cradlebeing his only #1 top 40 hit, over a span of 10 years, 12 albums, and hundreds of poems and stories put to song.
Fellow Long Island musician, Billy Joel, who produced 33 top 40 hits, and performed before over 100 sell-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, recalled Harry’s many kindnesses toward him in the “dog eat dog business” of music.
“I was the opening act for him at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis (now the Stifel Theatre) in 1973–74, “ Joel said. “ He was the headliner. He plugged me to his own audience. ‘How about that Billy Joel,’ he said. That was so gentlemanly of him, and, I never forgot that.”
Years later when the five-time Grammy Award winning Joel’s star rose faster and higher than Chapin’s, Harry opened for him, and Billy made a point of saying “we worked together, and we always worked really well as a show.’
Harry Chapin was not in the rarified league of John Lennon, Elvis or even Billy Joel when it came to fame. Few musicians were. But, regarding humanitarian work, few celebrities came close to Chapin, nor did many try to follow his lead, until after he was gone. Harry had created a Humanitarian Hall of Fame for performers who could translate their popularity into a permanent public good, and there were few stars applying to get in.
“In Harry’s case, he was literally the only artist in those days doing great humanitarian work,” said Ken Kragen, Chapin’s manager from 1976 until his death.
“ That’s what really made him unique. He was the only artist getting something done on the issues of hunger and poverty. He was very, very committed.”
Kragen, who would, in the mid 1980’s organize two enormous events aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty — We Are The World,and Hands Across America —which raised tens of millions of dollars and global awareness about the urgency of alleviating human suffering, credits Harry Chapin with being the source of his inspiration.
“ I had this overwhelming feeling that Harry Chapin had crawled up inside me, and he was directing everything I was doing, “ Kragen said. “Suddenly, I became the doer of his will. It was one of the things that pushed me to keep going.”
Billy Joel, standing next to Cyndi Lauper among the dozens of major recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Quincy Jones, & Stevie Wonder participating in the 1985 recording of We Are The World which Kragen arranged, underscored that assessment of what made Harry Chapin stand out from everyone else in the music business a full decade earlier.
“He was inspiring how motivated he was to try to help others. He was like a saint to the point of being a martyr, “ said Joel, noting that Chapin, seven years older was like an older brother to him, and taught him the importance of giving back. “If there was a religious medal for musicians who helped other people, Harry’s face would be on it,” Joel said.
Harry’s unmistakable smiling face and lanky body were badly burned in a fiery car crash, when his tiny Volkswagen Rabbit with a flawed seat-belt mechanism, was rear-ended by a big truck bearing down on him. Family members knew something was wrong when he was late for a significant meeting in NYC with his Business Manager, half-brother Jeb Hart, and top talent agent Shellie Schultz of ICM.
The meeting, blown-off the day before by Harry, had been rescheduled for July 16, by Jeb, who was now struggling to manage the day-to-day details of Harry’s musical career, out of sheer exasperation, to get Chapin to slow down a bit, concentrate more of his time and attention on his family and career, and devote less energy to the many social and political causes that were consuming him.
“Harry’s greatest quality, was his quality of inclusion, but he was just running, running on vapors, “ said Jeb, “and his career had become secondary. He was out of control. We were trying to get him to focus.”
In his decade of performing across the country, in venues that ranged from backyard barbeques to the Bottom Line Café, to big, sprawling concert halls, college campuses and the steps of the US Capitol Building, Harry Chapin did some 200 concerts per year, with nearly half of them being benefits for one non-profit or political cause or another, mostly fighting hunger and poverty.
From March, 1980 through July, 1981—the final 16 months of his life—Harry Chapin juggled enough projects to fill a career: he finished his work on the nation’s first-ever Presidential Hunger Commission which he and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D-VT) were instrumental in getting President Jimmy Carter to create; participated in unique Radio “HungerThons” with WPLJ-DJ and former Catholic priest Bill Ayres raising millions of dollars for the World Hunger Year (WHYHunger) organization they jointly established; founded Long Island Cares with his wife, partner, conscience and “one-person think tank” Sandy Chapin, who gave birth to the idea of a Presidential Hunger Commission; performed with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers at the funeral of his assassinated political hero, Allard Lowenstein; relentlessly conducted fundraising benefits across the United States for progressive Democratic candidates courageously combating the Reagan landslide of 1980; and gave the 2,000th concert of his career at the Bottom Line Café, in Manhattan over one weekend in January, 1981.
“Harry just couldn’t say ‘no’,” said Jeb Hart. “He had so many people he was talking to across a spectrum of causes and issues. He’d be making commitments to all of these entities in the midst of doing all these concerts.”
Chapin was involved with “good people,” as he liked to say, quoting Pete Seeger, long a role model for him in how to integrate his music into living a life that mattered on the most important social issues of the time.
In Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2019), author Jeff Place writes:
“Pete saw his music as a means to move mountains — to end racism, poverty, social injustice, political ineptitude and war. There was a reason behind every song Pete wrote or sang. They carried messages and taught lessons. They fostered hope or strength or both. Even the simply fun folksongs had a purpose: they made us feel happy and connected, which could lead to a respect for your fellows, or love for your neighbor, saving the earth from environmental disaster, or…”
Tom Chapin recalled a concert he, Harry and Pete did at Huntington High School, in early January, 1976, to benefit Huntington’s PAF Playhouse, the performing arts group which was a particular passion of Sandy Chapin’s, who was dedicated to arts and arts education.
“One of the students in the audience asked Pete if he thought that all of the benefits for good causes had made any difference, “Tom said. “Seeger responded with this trademark honesty. “ I don’t know,” he said to the student. “But, I do know this. I’ve met good people; people with live hearts, live eyes and live minds.”
“Such a perfect Pete answer,” Tom Chapin said. “Deflecting any credit, not putting down a young reporter’s slightly pushy question, and pointing out what the concerts had done for him personally. Harry and I never forgot it.”