Chapin: I think it's a romantic story because Harry died before MTV and any of the new technology. So it was like being an old fashioned troubadour, and he was constantly traveling, and on the road he would pick up those stories. So he'd bring stories to one town and pick up the new story. "Copper" for example was about Chicago. "Mr. Tanner" was a man named Martin Tubridy, and he really was from Ohio. So that's part of the story. He was, as you may have noticed, a big talker, and his songs were very verbose. I used to think it was absolutely remarkable that he could have a written line in a song, and make it scan when he put the music to it. But he always wrote the stories, the words, and then put music to them. Except for one occasion that I can recall when he wrote "Story Of A Life": he had the music for a long time, and he would play it over and over again. The story came to him while he was on a small plane flight someplace in the southwest. It was a very turbulent flight, really quite awful, and that's where he came up with the story to go with the music.
Songfacts: Was he one of these guys that always had a guitar or a notebook with him?
Sandy Chapin: Absolutely. He always had a notebook. The notebook, I think, came before the guitar. He was very intimidating to someone like me, because any writing I did was late at night after the kids were asleep. He could sit with a transistor radio listening to a hockey game, watch a basketball game on TV, and write a song. It was like breathing.
Chapin: Yeah, that's correct. Sometimes it was obvious, and a lot of times it would be less obvious, because sometimes there were people he didn't necessarily meet, but might have observed.
Songfacts: What are some of the less obvious ones?
Chapin: "Salt and Pepper" is about an old sailor. He got the idea from watching some people across a restaurant, and made up the story from the body language, what he thought that he was observing.
Songfacts: What about the song "W*O*L*D"?
Chapin: I think it's a composite person. It's a very real story in that when Harry was first starting he tended to be his own best promoter. He was very assertive about getting out and meeting people, and getting people to know his music. He had a manager early on, his name was Fred Kewley, and this is just before he started with Electra Records, he would call music companies and offices, and usually try to get to know the secretaries and the people that he would need to get him to the boss. So he would call up and he would say, "This is Fred Kewley, and I want to talk to you about this guy Harry Chapin," and he'd go on and on. And one time he called someone and that person said, "Hey, wait a minute, I know who this is." Someone recognized his voice. He was very energetic, very enthusiastic. He made a point of dropping in and meeting disc jockeys and program directors as he traveled around the country. As a matter of fact, when we moved to our home in Huntington, which was really helped by funds from Make A Wish [not the charity - see sidebar below], and also by the advance from when he signed with Electra Records, we had this big old house, and absolutely no furniture. To launch his second album he had a big party and invited a whole lot of program directors and disc jockeys and so forth. So he really got to know them and visited them. W*O*L*D was a composite.
Songfacts: How did he choose those specific call letters?.
Chapin: You know, I'm not sure. I guess in my head I had an idea that it was sort of related to "World" - kind of covering the range rather than picking one particular station.
Songfacts: That's really brilliant to write a song about disc jockeys, because the disc jockeys are going to...
Chapin: Play your song.
Songfacts: As a disc jockey myself, it's unbelievable how spot-on that song is, and how it relates to just about anybody who's been in front of the microphone.
Chapin: And there are people now who kind of fit the bill, I'm thinking of Cousin Brucie, but he was a young guy back then, so he wouldn't have fit so much the tired old guy in the song.
Songfacts: So many of the songs he wrote were about characters or news events, but then many of them were also very personal. For instance, the one he wrote about you, "I Want To Learn A Love Song." How much of that song is really true?
Songfacts: But he really did come over and give you guitar lessons?
Chapin: Yeah, he did. It was a fluke. I had three little kids, and I wanted to do old folk songs with them. I thought it was fun to do "Little Old Wagon Painted Blue," and "The Bucks Go Down In The Town-o." I was a teacher, and when I was studying, they told us that American folk songs were the only true American music, not derived from other places. So I had an interest in that. And I can't ever say I played very well, but I had taken piano lessons. That doesn't really work, because I wanted to sit on the floor, and do games and stuff. And I used to do that with little kids, like, we used to march to bed to "Marching To Pretoria." So I thought I'd like to learn to play guitar, and I tried a couple of avenues. There was one person I found who would give guitar lessons, but he was in the Upper West Side, and I was in Brooklyn Heights. And it would mean getting a babysitter and doing all that traveling for a one hour guitar lesson. I kind of dropped the idea, and then I got a call out of the blue because I think one of the people I had talked to had left a note with Harry's mom. Harry was out working in California after doing some work shooting commercials. He was out there for a year or more, and then he came back, was between jobs, and I guess his mother handed him the note. So by the time he called I had kind of forgotten, and didn't quite know what to make of the call. But I started the lessons, which were intermittent, because Harry was doing other things. We had some guitar lessons, and I wasn't very good, so I tried to be very diligent. And then after the guitar lesson, Harry would play some of the songs that he already had written, some of which were back when he was at Cornell. Some of the early ones like "Run Red River Run," and "Let Me Down Easy" - kind of folk songs.
The house is a brownstone, the first story is the kitchen, the second story is the so-called parlor, and then the top two floors are bedrooms. Downstairs there was a den, and my husband at the time always had poker night, and that was why I was doing those guitar lessons at the same time. Harry takes the song a little further... "So one night when the lights were dim," a little poetic license.
Songfacts: I'm getting the sense that parts of these songs are true, but he would do whatever works for the song. How about the song "Taxi"? Can you tell us what parts of that are true?
He had done three corporate training films. One I remember was for IBM. Three in a row, and he put aside the money, and was not working. He was doing a lot of writing. And one of the things that Harry would say was that he needed to be up against a deadline, because as the time was running out and the money was running out, that's when he would get very productive. And then, the money did run out and he went back to look for some work in film, but there wasn't anything available. He needed a job, he wanted to still to be able to write, so he applied for a cab license. And I was something like eight months pregnant. I felt very positive about it, because I thought, Wow, it would be a great experience, because people in cabs will tell him stories, and he'll get all kinds of characters for songs. I think he was feeling pretty low about it, and wrote the song "Taxi" with the idea that the people he had told his dreams - that he was gonna make a great film - were gonna get into the cab, and so he ended up being a cab driver after all the big talk. And one of whom would be the girlfriend that he had while he was at Cornell. Sue was a real person.
Chapin: No, I think that was made up. But the song was moved to the West Coast from the East Coast. His life, college and otherwise, his work, was all on the East Coast. Even his film work was on the East Coast, except for that one year in California when he was doing commercials.
When I would look through Harry's notebooks, I was amazed at how little editing there was. He would start jotting down ideas for a song or a story, and then decide later that because of the rhyming or the rhythm or whatever it was, that San Francisco would be a good place. He probably just came up with the line, "It was raining hard in Frisco," and went on from there. There were some notebooks where he jotted down four or six lines that he might come back to later and use. But there are other notebooks where he just sat down and wrote the song.
Songfacts: And do you know what gave him the idea to come up with the sequel to that song years later?
Chapin: I'm pretty sure I gave him the idea. I was thinking of a novel that I had read, too. This is all a very long time ago, you know. [laughing] I think it was by Graham Greene, an English writer. But anyway, it was like turnaround in a relationship. There was a relationship where one of the two people was much stronger and sort of the caretaker of the other, and then the tables were turned, and the woman became the stronger person, and so forth. So with that idea, I said, "Wouldn't it be interesting to see what happened to these people maybe 20 years later?" I just tossed out the idea. And as usual Harry was on the road and busy doing other things. And then at one point he said, "Why don't you try to write it?" And I didn't do anything with it. Then he sat down and wrote the sequel.
Songfacts: You were talking about how you need some silence, your own time when you write. Tell me about how you wrote "Cat's In The Cradle," at least the poem that started that.
Chapin: Actually, Harry and I kind of met because of writing. He would play some of his songs after a guitar lesson. But then he also would draw from a box of poems at the house, and I would toss a couple of mine to him and so forth. So we were both interested in writing. The first big job he got was writing for Make A Wish, and it also came at the time that he was starting his time with Electra. So he was on the road, leading a very hectic life. At that point he's doing a lot of small clubs where you get $100 a night and you have to pay the band, and it's all a promotional tour. So it was very hectic. He had to write 30 songs a year for Make A Wish, and he had to turn them in on a deadline. So he was on the road and I was at home and I would write songs for him which he would re-write. He had to teach me the structure of the song, because I wrote free verse poetry, so he would instruct me in how it worked: So many rhyming lines, and then a break and then a chorus and so forth. So he was teaching me songwriting. I wrote a lot of Make A Wish songs, and I started writing other songs as the ideas came to me.
"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. So that was part of the idea. 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, right? Would you agree with that?
Songfacts: I do. Yes.
Chapin: 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 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 - and this is when we were all in the same room - and yet he would say to me, "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.
Songfacts: Yeah, and that ended up being this really universal feeling.
Chapin: Right. Which I guess rang true with a lot of people because it was something that I actually saw in a relationship. As a matter of fact, my son Jason and his family, his wife and three children, live in Westchester, and the minister of their church gave a sermon just about 2 weeks ago using parables from the Bible. It was about procrastination and missed opportunities, and the subject of the sermon was "Cat's In The Cradle." So you know it's a real teaching opportunity that still comes up very, very often. It's used in sermons today, all these years later.
Songfacts: Well, it's just so incredibly valuable, because, just as you were saying, you don't learn your life's lessons until they've happened. This is an opportunity to learn that when you have your child.
Chapin: Right, yep.
Songfacts: One thing I thought was interesting is that you co-wrote this #1 hit, this big song. If I'm Harry Chapin, I'm saying, "Sandy, write more."
Chapin: Well, I did. I did write others. 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. But, you know, first round it didn't strike a chord. So I did write a number of songs, and I don't know whether they all are attributed or not, because he re-wrote them to a large degree. I remember a song called "Jenny." Sometimes I'd be going through notebooks of mine, and then something would strike a chord and I'd say, "Hey, wait a minute, that whole page is one of Harry's songs.
Songfacts: "Tangled Up Puppet," how did you go about writing that one?
Chapin: Well, it was a real life story. Jamie, who is the eldest of my five children, was probably 12-13 years old. We never had any closed doors in the house, and then all of a sudden she'd be going in her room and closing the door. You know, just acting like a teenage girl. But she was writing in a diary, she was turning from a tomboy into a little pre-teen. I know when I was writing the story, I was writing about Jamie, but I was always thinking, Well, nobody's really interested in songs like this. People are interested in stories about, "I love you and you love me." And I thought, How can I write this song so it works both ways? But of course it really was about a girl turning into a woman.
Songfacts: What are your favorite Harry Chapin songs?
Chapin: I think "Story Of A Life" is especially beautiful and poignant. I tend to like the romantic ballads, like "She Sings Songs Without Words." I didn't like the harsh songs very well, like "Sniper." Even "Bananas," you know, that was a very hard song to listen to.
Songfacts: It's kind of morbid, huh?
Chapin: Yeah, you know, that song morphed. It had a life of its own. Originally it was a poem that Harry wrote, it was just words on a page. And early on he was doing different kinds of musical performances with his father, and also his brothers who were in college at the time. So there was a limited time for them to perform. But he did it as a spoken song. And then I guess after the Village Gate days, and the beginning of the contract with Electra, he was going through notebooks and looking for material. He decided to put music to it. And I think the song developed a life of its own from audience reaction. It was a serious poem to begin with on the society's preoccupation with numbers. You have your drivers license and your social security and your credit card, and on and on and on and on. You're just made up of numbers. But it also was a story - a true story that was told to him while he was on a Greyhound bus ride.
Songfacts: Yeah, I was wondering how he picked up that story, because it's kind of a random news event.
Chapin: Yeah, it's real. The widow still lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The original poem started from a preoccupation with numbers, and then it got to be a kind of performance piece that was kind of tragicomedy. Very difficult, I thought.
Songfacts: Yeah. And then "Sniper" is also based on a real story, right?
Chapin: Yeah, that was a newspaper story that he read.
Songfacts: So, these days you work with the Harry Chapin Foundation, correct?
Songfacts: Can you just tell me a bit about that?
Chapin: It was started after Harry died to try to keep alive the things that he was already involved in. One example was called the Performing Arts Foundation, a theater and an education program. It was a regional theater with an arts and education component in the schools in Huntington, and Harry was the chairman of the board and the chief fundraiser. He also founded the Long Island Philharmonic Professional Regional Symphony, and also a regional ballet called Eglevsky Ballet. He was building cultural institutions, building in some cases stronger existing cultural institutions, in some cases new institutions, like the Long Island Philharmonic. He had a dream of a kind of Lincoln Center in the center of Long Island. Long Island, because of the geography, it's difficult to bring in audiences. If you're too close to the city, people will go to the city, and if you're too far out you don't have enough population to support the institution. So, he spent a lifetime in energy working on that. He was also involved with Pete Seeger and the Clearwater Festival and saving the Hudson. So there are a number of these things that we were going to try to keep going. The Performing Arts Theater Program did fail. It went bankrupt. The Long Island Philharmonic still exists. The Eglevsky Ballet still exists.
Songfacts: Do you still write?
Chapin: Almost not at all. Maybe once or twice a year. And it used to be pretty constant. It's just that my life has gotten to be very disjointed and disorganized, because I'm on call for 6 grandchildren. I moved to be closer to grandchildren, but that means that I moved away from the music office and the Foundation and the gallery that I still have in Huntington. So therefore, I'm either on the road to grandchildren, or I'm on the road to Huntington, or I'm on the road to Long Island Cares meetings, and so I'm just constantly on the road.
Songfacts: Wow, that's very good of you to be an on-call grandmother. I hope they appreciate you.
Chapin: I think they really do. But you see, it's the same thing in "Cat's In The Cradle." I mean, the eldest of the 6 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.
Learn more at harrychapinfoundation.org
January 7, 2009
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