I often joke with people that I love contemporary music but that, for me, contemporary music means any music which dates from approximately 1967-1980. It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the music of today or the last few years but I will confess that those voices I listen to and find myself most connected to are the ones I grew up with, listened to and loved as a teenager and a college and graduate student.
So many here and throughout the world are mourning the death of Whitney Houston whose talent was so great and who was a favorite of so many.
I would not profess to be as familiar with her as perhaps I should have been had I not been living in the past musically but in listening to the retrospectives and hearing her marvelous voice, I understand how she touched the hearts and souls of people throughout the world. I also understand how deeply she will be missed by those who loved her performance and her talent.
But, without meaning any disrespect to her memory, Whitney Houston’s death and the reaction to it among her fans reminded me of a moment 30 years ago when a tragic accident took the life of my favorite singer, Harry Chapin. I can remember the moment I heard of his death like it was yesterday and when I go back to listen to his music, I still find myself thinking what might have been.
Harry Chapin was a storyteller and a singer who touched the hearts of so many. His ballads were stories of real people, often stories of their disappointment and sadness. But, he also sang of dreams and of hopes not only for individuals but for the world. And, in addition to singing, he was part of the great tradition of activist musicians as he was a tireless worker for humanitarian causes, particularly for causes fighting world hunger.
If you never heard of Harry Chapin or if you only have heard a song or two of his, you owe it to yourself to go to the internet and find video of his performances. I saw him at Brandeis in 1976 and remember among other things, his determination to stay after the concert and sign autographs and shake hands with anyone who wanted to meet him. It was an inspiring evening and inspired me not only to continue to follow his career but to tell my stories from the bima and in print. We all have our songs to sing, our stories to tell.
I want to end this posting with a quote from Harry Chapin and it is difficult to choose which one to use. There are so many songs that touch me so deeply: Mr. Tanner, the story of a man who tried a musical career at the urging of friends only to be humiliated in the reviews; Stranger with the Melodies which tells the story of a singer who broke up with his lyric writing partner and was left with only the melody and no words; There Only Was One Choice, a long rambling autobiographical song which ends with the conviction that we are fortunate if we find a role in life that we seemed to destined to play even if it is frustrating at times and Mail Order Annie, a love song from a North Dakota farmer who meets his “mail order wife” and promises to share his life with her.
But, I’ll choose one which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. It comes from a song called I Miss America in which Chapin lamented the fact that people weren’t dreaming of a better world as much as they used to. He concluded his song with these words:
Well my little boy he told me something just the other night
He whispered it as I kissed him before I turned out the light
And of course he said it simply as only children can
He said: “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy please… I’m ready to dream again”.
Lately, I’ve been listening more and more to Chapin’s music. I find that I need d the inspiration it provides to continue to believe that this world can be a better place and that it is worth it for us to spend our time dreaming and working for better times. We can never give up dreaming and working for the better world that the singers and the poets have helped us envision.
May the memory of all of those whose voices have been lost be for a blessing.