This heartbreaking song tells of a father and son who can't schedule time to be with each other, and it serves as a warning against putting one's career before family. The verses start out with a natural harmony and depict the tale of a father with his newborn son. Although dad gets the necessities of child rearing accomplished, he doesn't allow himself to put in quality time with his son because of his career. Initially, this seems like no big deal because of his hectic and oblivious life working and paying bills.
The recurring verse has the son saying, "I'm gonna be like you Dad, you know I'm gonna be like you..."
Over time, both father and son grow into a switching of life roles. The father realizes his son's ambitions of college, grades, and driving, and wants to spend more time with him, yet slowly grasps the reality that now his son has no time for such things. In the last verse, Chapin illustrates that the son is all grown up with a fast-paced job and kids of his own. In a glaring twist of roles, we see that the son now has no time to spend with his father. With a heavy heart, dad realizes that his boy has become just like him.
This song is based on a poem that Harry's wife Sandy wrote. She told us: "'Cat's In The Cradle' was a combination of a couple of things. Whenever I was on a long drive I would listen to country music, because words would keep me awake more than just music. And I heard a song… I can remember the story, but I don't remember who sang it or what the title was, but an old couple were sitting at their breakfast table and looking out the window, and they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox, and they were reminiscing about the good old days when all the children were around and then the grandchildren, and how it passed, and now it's all gone.
The other part of the idea – this is always a problem, because Harry introduced the song at all his concerts and said, 'This is a song my wife wrote to zap me because I wasn't home when our son Josh was born.' I was always kind of amused by that because of the fact that we learn life's lessons too late. We don't learn lessons before the fact. We don't have a child born and then have all this wisdom. So I always thought it was interesting the way he told the story.
But I learned the story because my [first] husband was going to New York to be a lawyer, and I had a teaching job in New York. While we were apartment hunting, we were living with his parents in Brooklyn. His father was the borough president of Brooklyn at the time, which I think was a much more important job than it is today. But every day when he got home from work, he would start talking to his son about, 'It'd be great if you'd go down to the club on Tuesday night, I'd like to introduce you to some of the people I know,' and so forth. And he started trying to engineer a career for him which leads to politics. They did not have any relationship or communication because they had been so busy until his son went off to college and was gone. I don't remember exactly how, but he started talking to me. My father-in-law would say me, even though we were all in the same room, 'Tell Jimmy I would like to see him down at the clubhouse on Tuesday.' It was really very strange.
So this is the way the evenings went. The conversation was going through me. So I realized what had happened. You know, relationships and characters and personalities and all those things are formed by two, so I realized that that hadn't happened. And it was very jerky at that stage. So I observed something that gave me the idea for the song."
It took the birth of his son for Harry Chapin to decide to turn the poem his wife wrote into a song. Sandy Chapin explained in her Songfacts interview: "Harry and I would exchange writing of all kinds. We were always working on each other's writing. Some of my writing at a certain period were 20-page papers for a doctoral program at Columbia. So it wasn't always that poetic. But we both looked at each other's stuff. And then one time he came home and he said, 'What have you been doing?' I showed him 'Cat's In The Cradle,' and he said, 'Well, that's interesting.'
You know, sometimes he'd pick up something and put music to it. And that didn't really grab him at all. And then after Josh was born, it did. He picked it up and he wrote music to it."
Sandy Chapin runs the Harry Chapin Foundation, which does what it can to continue supporting the causes Harry championed when he was alive. While Sandy does a lot of work for the foundation, her focus is her family and her role as an on-call grandmother for six grandchildren. As can be expected of the woman who wrote "Cat's In The Cradle," she values the time she can spend with them while they are still young.
In our 2009 interview, she said: "The eldest of the six has just gone into 6th grade, which means not only does she live in a community where the kids grow up fast, but now she's in a middle school where everybody thinks they're teenagers and ought to be in high school. So you know, you have to grab those years. It used to be when I would drive up to the house, she would jump out and run and greet me, and say, 'Grandma, what's the project for today?' Because I would always bring some arts and crafts. We'd make Thanksgiving place cards, or Christmas tree ornaments. But all through the year I was always doing projects with them. So now she's answering her e-mail, she's on her cell phone and doing dates, walking around town with her friends, being a grownup, and doing all the after school activities. You have to grab that chance when you have it." (Read more in our interview with Sandy Chapin
The message about procrastination and missed opportunities makes this song an excellent parable for use in church sermons, where it remains very popular.
Harry Chapin included various symbols of childhood in the lyrics as reminders of how quickly it ends. "Cat's Cradle" is a game played with string, "Silver Spoons" are ornamental spoons for babies, and "Little Boy Blue" is a nursery rhyme. "Man In The Moon" could be about the human features children see when they look at the moon.
This song was used for a commercial in Northern Ireland about the troubles at the time. In the spot, a father is involved in one of the political groups and he isn't much of an example for his son (flash back father with gun running into house terrorizing family of opposite religion, etc.). Because of this the kid ends of following in his foot steps. It tried to send the message that following a bad example can become a vicious circle and unless we change, the troubles will never go away and our children will suffer.
There have been many cover versions of this song, but the only one to chart is by Ugly Kid Joe, a puckish rock band known for their novelty hit "Everything About You." Released as a single from their 1992 album America's Least Wanted
, their rendition went to #6 US and #7 UK (the only UK chart entry for the song, since Chapin's original didn't make the tally).
In their remake, Ugly Kid Joe changed the lyric "Man in the moon" to "Man ON the moon," apparently thinking the song was referring to Neil Armstrong's 1969 lunar landing. Another tweak: their version is titled "Cats in the Cradle," without the apostrophe. This indicates that there is more than one cat in the cradle, but it's unlikely the band was concerned with the vagaries of grammar.
Ugly Kid Joe's version is earnest, however. When we spoke with their lead singer Whitfield Crane
, he said, "That song means a lot to me just because of my childhood."
The video for the Ugly Kid Joe version was directed by Matt Mahurin, an illustrator whose work has appeared in many high-profile magazines. Mahurin was shooting a lot of music videos around this time, including clips for Alice in Chains ("No Excuses") and Soundgarden ("Outshined").
For the "Cats in the Cradle" video, Mahurin shows the boy growing into a man, ending with a shot of the father old and lonely. It's an elegant and touching portrayal of the song, with lots of cinematic slow-motion footage.
The scenes where Whitfield Crane is singing were shot in Mahurin's game room - he had Crane sit on the pool table and sing. They had what they needed after one take.
This song plays throughout a Nissan commercial that debuted during the 2015 Super Bowl (between the Patriots and Seahawks). In the spot, a champion race car driver spends most of his time away from home and rarely sees his son. At the end of the commercial, he shows up in a Nissan to surprise his now-teenaged son.
We found the ad troubling for two reasons:
1) The idea that an absentee father can show up late in his child's life and all will be forgiven.
2) At one point in the commercial, the driver survives a crash. Chapin was killed in a car accident.
Still, any time the song is used in a commercial, Chapin's estate gets paid, which ultimately benefits his foundation.