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Remember When the Music - A tribute to Harry Chapin

Harry Chapin may not be the best known singer-songwriter of all time but to his many fans he had the ability to say more in one song than many others do in an entire career.

The measure of the man was, however, that he practised what he preached. For Harry was one of the world’s great humanitarians - raising millions of dollars to fight world hunger. At a later date I would like to write about that side of the man.

But for now I would like to concentrate on his music and try to analyse just what it has meant to myself and to thousands of others in the years before and the years after his tragic death.

Over the years, music critics have dismissed him merely as a singer of stories. Some have accused him of being trite, corny and even vacuous. None of these words are remotely correct. Harry was a man full of life, full of ideas and he put these into his music.

His songs were at times funny, at times happy, at times sad. He ran through the entire gambit of human emotions. I know of no emotion I have felt that cannot be covered by a Harry song. His songs can be used as antidotes. Feeling sad then listen to one of his upbeat songs; feeling unwanted then listen to one of his caring songs. At the same time if you want a good wallow there are Harry songs by the bucketload to sum your feelings up.

Harry had a unique way of expressing his emotions and of turning the most complex human situations into apparently simple rhyming couplets. Underneath it all, however, the lyrics are intensely deep. Never was he corny or pretentious.

His songs came from the heart as he stated of Mr Tanner in one of his best loved songs:

“He sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.

He did not know how well he sang, it just made him whole.”

And if Harry was confident and expressive in his fight against hunger, he was always modest and ctly how I feel at this moment in time.” With others that might happen once or twice. With Harry it happened and continues to happen continuously.

There isn’t one of his albums that doesn’t speak personally to me and there are only a small handful of songs that have not affected me in some way. The great thing is that I am not alone. You only have to follow some of the links I have included at the end of this piece to see that. Just take a look at the Harry Chapin chat board where fans express their views daily. This is an inter-reaction that I am sure Harry would have loved. These people have one thing in common - they have taken the man to their hearts and his music has great relevance to them and their lives.

I like to think that Harry Chapin made a difference. Indeed I know that he did and his message is as powerful today as it was the day he died. And so it will always be. Harry’s music is as vital today as it was 20 years ago and a whole new legion of young fans - some not born when he died - are growing up to pass his legacy on.

I could write thousands of words on every Chapin song - indeed some would allege that I already have! I am unashamedly a fan, but it is not a hero worship born out of vacuousness. It is an acceptance that here was a man that stands for the same ideals as me. A man wself-effacing about his songwriting - referring to himself as a third rate artist.

There are so many messages in Harry’s songs that he defies catagorisation. Often I have listened to his songs and, holding my breath, have been able to say “Wow that’s exactly how I feel at this moment in time.” With others that might happen once or twice. With Harry it happened and continues to happen continuously.

There isn’t one of his albums that doesn’t speak personally to me and there are only a small handful of songs that have not affected me in some way. The great thing is that I am not alone. You only have to follow some of the links I have included at the end of this piece to see that. Just take a look at the Harry Chapin chat board where fans express their views daily. This is an inter-reaction that I am sure Harry would have loved. These people have one thing in common - they have taken the man to their hearts and his music has great relevance to them and their lives.

I like to think that Harry Chapin made a difference. Indeed I know that he did and his message is as powerful today as it was the day he died. And so it will always be. Harry’s music is as vital today as it was 20 years ago and a whole new legion of young fans - some not born when he died - are growing up to pass his legacy on.

I ho, in his own way, was fragile.

Sometimes when the going gets hard, when the hassles and stresses of everyday are becoming too much, it becomes hard to remain focused on his ideals. But that is exactly when we need his messages the most and when we can get the most from Harry’s songs.

I have already on my web site started to give some of my own interpretations of his songs. I may be a million miles off the mark, but I know Harry wouldn’t mind me having a stab and they are only my own feelings about the songs and what they mean to me.

Harry was undoubtedly a poet and, like all great poets, you apply the words to your own successes and failures. On the surface the lyrics may seem simplistic but behind them are some of the deepest emotions and most powerful expressions I have ever come across.

Most fans have their favourite lines and many of these have been discussed on the chat board. I can muse for hours on my favourite which come from WOLD:

“Sometimes I get this crazy dream that I just take off in my car
But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.”

This is an intensely deep couplet that sums up one of Harry’s recurring themes that you cannot chase a dream. It doesn’t matter how far you physically move, it is what is inside you that counts. In other words you can travel 10,000 but mentally and psychologically stay exactly where you are. The problems are those inside you and you cannot run away from them.

Numerous themes run through Harry’s music and many themes are repeated in a number of songs. The aim of this piece is to discuss and outline some of these themes and by doing this to understand the complexity of individual songs, understand a little about Harry as an artist and learn a little bit more about myself and my own beliefs.

I believe that although Harry is no longer with us he is still reaching out to us.I hope that a journey through Harry’s songs will be a journey through my own life and will help me confront my own prejudices. Maybe by the end of this journey I will be able to tell you whether it’s all been worthwhile - I truly believe at the outset that it will be.

Of course Harry isn't around to contradict or correct me - I only wish that he was. I just think the guy would have got one helluva kick out of knowing that us guys are spending our time remembering him.

The most important thing, however, is that Harry still speaks to us and, after listening to the new Bottom Line CD, I believe his message to us would be quite simply "Yeah it's okay guys, but you really have to do something positive and not just talk about my songs."

And of course he would be right.

So what am I doing about it. Has my love of Harry's music led me to lead a better life. I believe that the answer to that is a definite yes.

Firstly listening to Harry's music makes me calmer and happier. But then so does listening to other music. So where is the difference?

Secondly and most important and the answer to the above question is that Harry's music seems to talk to me when things are going wrong and helps me to see problems in perspective.

Thirdly I try to lead my life by his doctrines. I never saw him in concert, I never knew him personally (although you will see from my web site that I had been in correspondence with him), but he always seems to be there.

I felt his death as a personal tragedy, just as if somebody close to me had passed on. I know many of you reading this will share the sense of loss. Now 18 years later here I am writing thousands of words about the guy.

Now I'm pretty much a down to earth kind of person and I would never claim anything like Harry is using me to communicate through. What I can say is that as I sit in holiday in the north of England listening to the Gold Medal collection through headphones (is there any better way of listening to Harry or getting him into your head?) the words are cascading from my brain, through my pen and onto paper.

Yes Harry's music is the singular most potent outside force in my life. A few days ago when I was moaning about work (for about the 150,000th time) I wondered what Harry would say to me about the situation. I think it would go something like.

"Why don't you do something about it. If you really care get off your butt and do something."

So over the years what has Harry helped me to achieve. I have been involved in a number of charitable organisations, acted as a counsellor with the Samaritans and worked closely with young people - particularly in the field of sport.

I'm not suggesting that without Harry I wouldn't have done these things, but in time of self doubt I turn again and again to those lyrics and songs for strength

Above all Harry's songs have taught me to value people. I certain areas of my life today I am in a position to be able to ensure that people are valued and I endeavour to do this. How many people in our world today feel used and abused and under-valued. If Harry taught me one thing it is that WE MUST CARE and we must be active and not passive in our caring.

So as I begin this piece I do feel that Harry is in spirit looking over my shoulder and certainly his words and music are leading me. Harry I salute you and buddy Keep the Change!

So bearing in mind Harry's words from one of my favourite Chapin songs "Story of a Life"

Now sometimes words can serve me well
Sometimes words can go to hell
For all that they do."

I will begin. could write thousands of words on every Chapin song - indeed some would allege that I already have! I am unashamedly a fan, but it is not a hero worship born out of vacuousness. It is an acceptance that here was a man that stands for the same ideals as me. A man who, in his own way, was fragile.

Sometimes when the going gets hard, when the hassles and stresses of everyday are becoming too much, it becomes hard to remain focused on his ideals. But that is exactly when we need his messages the most and when we can get the most from Harry’s songs.

I have already on my web site started to give some of my own interpretations of his songs. I may be a million miles off the mark, but I know Harry wouldn’t mind me having a stab and they are only my own feelings about the songs and what they mean to me.

Harry was undoubtedly a poet and, like all great poets, you apply the words to your own successes and failures. On the surface the lyrics may seem simplistic but behind them are some of the deepest emotions and most powerful expressions I have ever come across.

Most fans have their favourite lines and many of these have been discussed on the chat board. I can muse for hours on my favourite which come from WOLD:

“Sometimes I get this crazy dream that I just take off in my car
But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.”

This is an intensely deep couplet that sums up one of Harry’s recurring themes that you cannot chase a dream. It doesn’t matter how far you physically move, it is what is inside you that counts. In other words you can travel 10,000 but mentally and psychologically stay exactly where you are. The problems are those inside you and you cannot run away from them.

Numerous themes run through Harry’s music and many themes are repeated in a number of songs. The aim of this piece is to discuss and outline some of these themes and by doing this to understand the complexity of individual songs, understand a little about Harry as an artist and learn a little bit more about myself and my own beliefs.

I believe that although Harry is no longer with us he is still reaching out to us.I hope that a journey through Harry’s songs will be a journey through my own life and will help me confront my own prejudices. Maybe by the end of this journey I will be able to tell you whether it’s all been worthwhile - I truly believe at the outset that it will be.

Of course Harry isn't around to contradict or correct me - I only wish that he was. I just think the guy would have got one helluva kick out of knowing that us guys are spending our time remembering him.

The most important thing, however, is that Harry still speaks to us and, after listening to the new Bottom Line CD, I believe his message to us would be quite simply "Yeah it's okay guys, but you really have to do something positive and not just talk about my songs."

And of course he would be right.

So what am I doing about it. Has my love of Harry's music led me to lead a better life. I believe that the answer to that is a definite yes.

Firstly listening to Harry's music makes me calmer and happier. But then so does listening to other music. So where is the difference?

Secondly and most important and the answer to the above question is that Harry's music seems to talk to me when things are going wrong and helps me to see problems in perspective.

Thirdly I try to lead my life by his doctrines. I never saw him in concert, I never knew him personally (although you will see from my web site that I had been in correspondence with him), but he always seems to be there.

I felt his death as a personal tragedy, just as if somebody close to me had passed on. I know many of you reading this will share the sense of loss. Now 18 years later here I am writing thousands of words about the guy.

Now I'm pretty much a down to earth kind of person and I would never claim anything like Harry is using me to communicate through. What I can say is that as I sit in holiday in the north of England listening to the Gold Medal collection through headphones (is there any better way of listening to Harry or getting him into your head?) the words are cascading from my brain, through my pen and onto paper.

Yes Harry's music is the singular most potent outside force in my life. A few days ago when I was moaning about work (for about the 150,000th time) I wondered what Harry would say to me about the situation. I think it would go something like.

"Why don't you do something about it. If you really care get off your butt and do something."

So over the years what has Harry helped me to achieve. I have been involved in a number of charitable organisations, acted as a counsellor with the Samaritans and worked closely with young people - particularly in the field of sport.

I'm not suggesting that without Harry I wouldn't have done these things, but in time of self doubt I turn again and again to those lyrics and songs for strength

Above all Harry's songs have taught me to value people. I certain areas of my life today I am in a position to be able to ensure that people are valued and I endeavour to do this. How many people in our world today feel used and abused and under-valued. If Harry taught me one thing it is that WE MUST CARE and we must be active and not passive in our caring.

So as I begin this piece I do feel that Harry is in spirit looking over my shoulder and certainly his words and music are leading me. Harry I salute you and buddy Keep the Change!

So bearing in mind Harry's words from one of my favourite Chapin songs "Story of a Life"

Now sometimes words can serve me well
Sometimes words can go to hell
For all that they do."

I will begin.

And Harry, wherever you are this one's for you and I hope that whatever we are doing on the Internet is entertaining you just one thousandth of the amount that you still entertain us.

As I've already said Harry used many themes within his songs and it is these themes that are the key to the greatness of his songs. His messages were deep but he never sat in judgement.

One great recurring theme is that of lost opportunity and broken dreams. These themes occur time after time. But Harry looks at the s

And Harry, wherever you are this one's for you and I hope that whatever we are doing on the Internet is entertaining you just one thousandth of the amount that you still entertain us.

As I've already said Harry used many themes within his songs and it is these themes that are the key to the greatness of his songs. His messages were deep but he never sat in judgement.

One great recurring theme is that of lost opportunity and broken dreams. These themes occur time after time. But Harry looks at the situation from many different angles and through many different characters. There are times when he or his characters are comfortable with lost opportunities but at other times they most decidedly are not.

One of his most original and endearing songs is Taxi and that has the theme as a central point.

"She was going to be an actress
And I was going to learn to fly
She took off to find the footlights
I took off to find the sky."

Of course neither found their dream.

© Peter Steward 2008 - No part of this essay may be reproduced without the permission of the author who can be contacted by clicking here

To be continued


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