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Nancy Kaye/AP
Singer-songwriter Harry Chapin
performing at Avery Fischer Hall
in New York City in 1967.

Harry Chapin, Singer/Songwriter and Humanitarian

March 15, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Harry Chapin told stories through songs, expressing an idealism that alienated some but charmed more. As impressive as his musical talent was, Chapin’s commitment to social activism and attention to hunger causes was perhaps even more astounding. His life was cut short, but his heartfelt, charitable legacy lives on.

Harry Chapin’s Early Days

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Born on Dec. 7, 1942, in New York’s Greenwich Village, Harry Chapin had an artistic family. According to the Harry Chapin Foundation, his paternal grandfather was a painter, his maternal grandfather was a “renowned philosopher and literary critic,” and his dad, Jim Chapin, was a noted jazz drummer. Each influenced Harry, culminating in “his urban folk, miniature movie story songs of blue collar Americans.” Harry’s diverse interests—documentary filmmaking, Broadway shows, film scores and children’s television—are also a reflection of his artistic upbringing.

As a high school student, Chapin took his first step as a performer. He sang with the Brooklyn Heights Boys’ Choir, and formed a band with brothers Tom and Stephen. In college, Chapin changed his tune, deciding that a career in documentary filmmaking was for him. He went on to direct “Legendary Champions” in 1968, and the film was nominated for an Oscar, according to VH1.

A few years later, in 1971, Chapin went back to music, gathering band mates through an ad he placed in New York’s Village Voice newspaper. Chapin, bassist John Wallace, guitarist Ron Palmer and cellist Tim Scott started performing together in New York City clubs. Soon after, Chapin got a deal with Elektra Records.

Chapin’s Notable Accomplishments

Rolling Stone magazine provides a discography of Harry Chapin songs, organized by main releases, singles and compilations, from 1970-2008. Among his biggest hits were “Cat’s in the Cradle,” “Taxi” and “Sequel,” according to the Harry Chapin Foundation.

Chapin is beloved as much for his music as for his generosity and commitment to charitable causes, namely hunger in America.

All in all, he “recorded 11 albums and raised more than $5 million for charity,” The New York Times reported. Although his career as a musician spanned a decade, he used every possible spare moment to give back. His wife, Sandy, told the Times, “I wouldn’t call Harry a philanthropist. A philanthropist is someone who writes checks, and Harry was really a social activist.” Sandy also recalled that her husband would wait in bathrooms for senators to emerge, and then confront them on hunger issues.

His brother, James, said Harry was “a ‘genuine, small “d” democrat’ who truly believed in participatory democracy.” Tireless in his pursuit of charitable causes, Chapin was out to create change, and convince others that they could do the same.

Chapin’s Activist Work

As the blog Your Friday Bruce Fix notes, Chapin earned a lot of money but gave a lot of it away—an estimated third of his concert proceeds. His legacy continues today with various organizations.

World Hunger Year (WHY), cofounded by Chapin, works to create “long-term solutions to hunger and poverty by supporting community-based organizations that empower individuals and build self-reliance,” according to Philanthropy News Digest. As usual, Chapin was the motivating force; he “almost single-handedly lobbied Congress to pass a resolution creating the President's Commission on World Hunger” and convinced President Jimmy Carter to sign it.

On the WHY Web site, learn more about the Harry Chapin Media Awards, which “honor journalists for their coverage of hunger and poverty issues.”

The Harry Chapin Foundation aims to help people become “self-sufficient,” and focuses on community education, arts in education programs, and agriculture and environmental programs. 

The Rest of the Story

Watch video clips, including a “solo acoustic performance by Bruce Springsteen” captured during a tribute show for Chapin held at Carnegie Hall in December 1987. Springsteen honors Chapin’s incredible life and tells how he and Chapin became friends. Another video clip features Chapin performing his hit “Cats in the Cradle,” which was based on a poem by his wife, Sandy. “Frankly, this song scares me to death,” Chapin says before starting to play.

HarryChapinMusic.com was created by Chapin’s family, and includes a motley assortment of Chapin’s stories, unpublished music and photos. Information about current charitable projects, such as Hungerthon, and concerts is provided. The site’s most intriguing section is “Keepsakes.” It features photos of Harry Chapin from childhood through adulthood, as well as “‘lost’ lyrics” gathered from his notebooks, and poems written by Sandy. Harry Chapin’s self-typed autobiography is also featured here.

On July 29, 1987, a ceremony was held establishing Harry Chapin Playground in Brooklyn Heights. Chapin used to play with his brothers in the same park, at Columbia Heights and Middagh Street, according to New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. 
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