Songs of 74: Cat’s in the Cradle / Harry Chapin

This year Radioinfo will take you back 50 years to the songs that were released and charted in 1974. It was a mighty fine year for music.

Ironically I’ve started this piece on Cat’s in the Cradle a few times but put it down because something else from 74 seemed more timely. My own son turned 18 last weekend. Everyone tells you how fast it goes from the first time you meet them until they fly the nest, which is almost unbearably true. Right now I just wish for more time with my boy.

A former colleague lived and worked in the US and told me a story about Harry Chapin that I’ve not seen repeated elsewhere. He was apparently a massive radio nerd and would pop into radio stations wherever he was performing, introduce himself and ask if he could have a look around.

It was via sitting in and listening to a phone conversation that Boston WMEX drive host Jim Connors was having with his ex-wife, that Chapin was inspired to write W.O.L.D, a true tribute to the classic nomadic disc jockey. After Connors hung up he and Chapin talked deeply, on air and off, about happiness, marriage, divorce and surviving in the industry.

Chapin was very much that sort of person. His widow Sandy Chapin said after he died:

“Harry was supporting 17 relatives, 14 associations, seven foundations, and 82 charities. Harry wasn’t interested in saving money. He always said, ‘Money is for people,’ so he gave it away.”

The Harry Chapin Foundation, created to continue Harry’s mission of reducing hunger in the US and the world, continues to this day.

Sandy had been married before she met Chapin and is a poet and songwriter too. She’d written the words to Cat’s in the Cradle about her lawyer ex-husband’s relationship with his politician dad.

Chapin, who was so driven to change the world through his music and activism, had it additionally resonate with him when his son with Sandy, Joshua, was born.

Harry initially aspired to become a documentary film maker. As a result, much of his songs have a plot and a storyline (the pictured Taxi another great example). He is less recognised for the outstanding guitarist he became, again out of necessity due to friction he would create with band members accompanying him about how much of the proceeds of concerts together he wanted to donate to causes that mattered to him.

He would often perform solo, to save costs. People have said Cat’s in the Cradle is difficult to perform, due to the required syncopation of the lyrics and playing. As many of you will know, rock band Ugly Kid Joe covered it in 1992 and it would reach No 1 in Australia. Chapin’s original peaked at No 6.

I think the lyrics about regretting a disconnect that has been self-created with one’s children is a message that will always hit home.

Chapin died in 1981, aged just 38, in a car accident while on his way to play a free benefit concert. I’ve just discovered today that Jim Connors, the radio announcer that so inspired Chapin, died in a car accident too, just a couple of years later.

Harry Chapin is buried in New York. His epitaph has these lines from his 1978 song I Wonder What Would Happen to this World:

Oh, if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world?

Jen Seyderhelm is a writer, editor and music trivia buff for Radioinfo

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