Today, July 16, 2021 is the 40th anniversary of the automobile accident which claimed the life of singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian, Harry Chapin.
Harry Chapin was my “musical hero”. He was an inspiration to so many and his death stunned those who loved his music and his words and admired and emulated his passion for working to improve the world, especially through his work fighting world hunger.
Several years ago, I wrote a tribute to Harry on my website and I reprint it here with some more recent edits. I also wrote of the impact of his words and music in my book The Long Way Around.
The inspiration of those words and music continue.
May his memory be for a blessing.
This morning, I turned on my car radio and set the phone on “shuffle” and the first song that came up was: “Mail Order Annie” by Harry Chapin.
I took that as a sign that I had to fulfill the promise I made on Facebook last week to write a blog post on my favorite musician. The occasion of the Facebook posting was the news of the death of the woman who inspired the song: “Taxi”. Taxi was the first Chapin song that I (and I assume many others) heard and while I can still sing it all the way though and still love the story, Taxi has moved down the list of my favorite Chapin songs, replaced by songs that didn’t make the “top 40” charts but resonate so deeply.
A step back for those who need it: Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian who raised so much money to fight world hunger as well as for other worthy causes. His stories of real people, their triumphs and sadness, so often tinged with loneliness and disappointment are unforgettable. He was by all accounts a wonderful, real person and would often end his concerts (as he did when I heard him in 1977 at Brandeis University) by staying until everyone who wanted to had had a chance for a handshake, a hug and an autograph. I still have the autograph.
Harry died in a tragic automobile accident in 1981. I can still remember the day he died. I was working at Camp Ramah and upon hearing the news, I had to take some time away from everyone and wandered to the far end of the camp to sit and think deeply about what it means when a voice is stilled and when a good life comes to an end.
I want this post to be about Harry’s music and, more importantly, his stories. I urge you to look up the songs online
So, which are my favorite songs?
There are so many but I’ll start with the one that played on my car radio:Mail Order Annie, the story of a farmer from North Dakota who meets his “mail order bride” as she gets off the train. The bridge in the song features the sentiment that while it’s a lonely life out on the plains, “there’s you babe, there’s me… and there’s God“. As he sings those words, they reach a beautiful crescendo falling softly to the last verse which ends with: “Mail order Annie, let’s you and me go home“. Such a tender, beautiful song.
Then there is Mr. Tanner, the dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio. His singing is praised by all his friends who finally convince him to try his hand at a professional concert. He uses all his savings and the critics suggest he find another profession. The part of that song that is so brilliant is how he sings the chorus while in the background, we hear a beautiful rendition of “O Holy Night” which fits perfectly with the melody of the Chapin song.
A Better Place to Be tells the story of the lonely waitress who listens to the sad story of the night watchman who comes in for a drink. He tells her the story of the beautiful woman that he found and then lost. She “takes her bar rag and wipes it across her eyes” before leaving together with him so that neither are alone.
One of my favorites is Corey’s Coming, an odd story of a man who describes a lover to his young friend. I won’t give away the rest of this story. You can hear it for yourself.
Finally, there is my absolute favorite. The song is called Stranger With the Melodies and is about a man who has lost his writing partner and can only sing the names of the notes and chords that he is singing because he has lost the words that make the music meaningful. This song has deep personal meaning for me as I quoted it in the eulogy I wrote for my mother thinking back to the loss of her writing partner, my father, four years before. The song is so beautiful and so haunting and it is my favorite.
I’ll just mention two more. The first is one of the last songs that he recorded: Oh Man which includes words which once moved me in ways that are far too private and personal to describe here:
Now it must feel so very strange to have to throw away all the lines that you have learned and force yourself to change.
So many are so beautiful. Take a moment to listen to Remember When the Music, Vacancy, Tangled Up Puppet, Dance Band on the Titanic and the sequel to Taxi, called appropriately enough: Sequel. The words
and music that accompany them are gems, as are so many others.
I’ll end with the lyrics which are always, always in my mind and which I will quote in a sermon next Shabbat morning and which I will post here next week.
All my Life’s a Circle
Sunrise and Sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my Life’s a Circle
But I can’t tell you why
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.
The years that roll by are richer as we still have these beautiful songs and stories
to accompany us.
Rest in peace, Harry.