The Ballads of Harry Chapin
I’d venture to guess that most people around my age have never heard of Harry Chapin. Heck, even people not my age have never heard of him.
So for those of you who don’t, Harry Chapin was a folk singer-songwriter who was known for his musical stories in the 1970’s. Harry was not an artist that frequented the radio much, even in the 1970s. His songs were ballads, often too long for radio (even AM radio). But each one was a story, usually about a man and some sort of inner conflict.
How do I know who this guy is, you ask? I first learned about Harry and his ballads on family road trips from San Diego to Lake Tahoe. About half way up California Highway 395, my Dad would break out the Harry Chapin Greatest Stories Live cassette tape. It started with Dreams Go By. Then on to WOLD, Taxi, Cats in the Cradle, 30,000 Pounds of Bananas, and Dad’s favorite, Circle.
I’m not sure why Dad waited until the mid-point of the trip to listen to Harry. Knowing my father and his strong sense of discipline, perhaps it was a reward for making it through half the route. Maybe he wanted to be sure he heard all the news on the Mighty 690 first. Either way, we knew at some point during that trip up the California highway, Harry and his greatest stories would make an appearance.
I once asked my dad –while on one of our road trips – why he liked Harry’s music. He told me Harry’s songs were not like typical songs. They were stories, and he enjoyed hearing the musical stories.
It wasn’t until recently when I rediscovered Harry that I started to hear more in his songs and may have discovered what about his stories really resonated with my Dad, and now me. Listening to these songs now – probably a good 20 years since the last family road trip – I sensed the deep theme of regret that resonates in so many of Harry’s songs. It’s as if Harry doesn’t think there’s a right path in life; one can’t simply be happy. There’s always the road not taken.
In Dreams Go By, Harry sings about all the dreams he (or the protagonist) had as a young man. Yet as the years go by, the dreams fade to make way for the more sensible things in life – a job, family, home. I find the music of this song fascinating. Listening to it, it sounds very upbeat. Yet the words behind the music is quite sorrowful.
And then there’s the camp of songs where the character does live his dream, but ends up unhappy in the long–run. In WOLD, he sings about the man who does take the chance on his dream and leaves his family to be “an FM jock.” Yet the end of the song is filled with sorrow as he realizes he can no longer live this young man’s dream and wishes he could go back home to his estranged family.
This also comes up in Mr. Tanner, when the Ohio dry-cleaner takes a chance on his singing career and gets panned by critics. There’s Taxi, which tells the story of the man who wanted to be a pilot, yet is now driving a taxi around San Francisco. And of course, the famous Cats in the Cradle, the classic tale of the turbulent father-son relationship dilemma.
These songs – as sorrowful as they are – are ripe with meaning. It’s as if Harry’s saying you you’re screwed either way. You live your dream and end up with another type of regret. Or you don’t live the dream, and you regret that decision.
Interestingly, not all of Harry’s tunes are sorrowful. One of my favorites – I Wanna Learn a Love Song – is about how Harry and his wife met and fell in love while he gave her guitar lessons. And then there’s She’s Only Seventeen, about the hopes and dreams of a young women determined not to give up during the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s.
And there’s Circle, my Dad’s favorite. In Circle, there’s hope. Life is not a one-way, dead-end street full of regret. There’s still potential in the years that “keep on rolling by.” I think Harry (and my Dad) truly believed that.
But now here I am, nearly 35-years-old, examining my life choices and listening to Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live, almost for the first time. They are very different stories to me now than they were on family road trips. While I don’t necessarily have regrets in my life, I feel like I am at a point where I’m re-examining my life choices, and wondering about the roads not taken. What better way to think about the roads in my life than to have Harry singing along with me.
NOTE: If you want to hear Harry Chapin’s Greatest Stories Live, I recommend downloading the album from Amazon. It’s the only place I’ve found that has all the songs from the cassette and original album.