Harry Chapin: An Appreciation

This morning, I turned on my car radio and decided to listen to the music that was on my phone. I set the phone on “shuffle” and the first song that came up was: “Mail Order Annie” by Harry Chapin.

I took that as a sign that I had to fulfill the promise I made on Facebook last week to write a blog post on my favorite musician. The occasion of the Facebook posting was the news of the death of the woman who inspired the song: “Taxi”. Taxi was the first Chapin song that I (and I assume many others) heard and while I can still sing it all the way though and still am moved at the story, it has moved  down the list of my favorite Chapin songs, replaced by songs that didn’t make the “top 40” charts but resonate so deeply.

A step back for those who need: Harry Chapin was a singer, songwriter, storyteller and humanitarian who raised so much money to fight world hunger as well as ror other worthy causes. His stories of real people, their triumphs and sadness, so often tinged with loneliness and disappointment are unforgettable. He was by all accounts a wonderful, real person and would often end his concerts (as he did when I heard him in 1977 at Brandeis) by staying until everyone who wanted to had had a chance for a handshake, a hug and an autograph. I still have the autograph.

Harry died in a tragic automobile accident in 1981. I can still remember the day he died. I was working at Camp Ramah as a division head for 13 year olds and upon hearing the news, I had to take some time away from everyone and wandered to the far end of the camp to sit and think deeply about what it means when a voice is stilled and when a good life comes to an end.

I want this post to be about Harry’s music and, more importantly, his stories. Someday, I’ll write the essay I’ve been dreaming of writing for many years and that is where his stories intersect with Jewish texts and values. For now, just some random thoughts of the songs I love most. I urge you to look up the songs on the Internet if you are not familiar with them.

So, which are my favorite songs?

There are so many but I’ll start with Mail Order Annie, the story of a farmer from North Dakota who meets his “mail order wife” as she gets off the train. The bridge in the song features the sentiment that while it’s a lonely life out on the plains, “there’s you babe, there’s me… and there’s God“. As he sings those words, they reach a beautiful crescendo falling softly to the last verse which ends with: “Mail order Annie, let’s you and me go home“. Such a tender, beautiful song.

Then there is Mr. Tanner, the dry cleaner from Dayton, Ohio. His singing is praised by all his friends who finally convince him to try his hand at a professional concert. He uses all his savings and the critics suggest he find another profession. The part of that song that is so brilliant is how he sings the chorus while in the background, we hear  a beautiful. operatic rendition of “O Holy Night” which fits perfectly with the melody of the Chapin song.

There is A Better Place to Be which tells the story of the lonely waitress who listens to the sad story of the night watchman who comes in for a drink. He tells her the story of the beautiful woman that he found and then lost. She ends up crying with him and they leave together.

One of my favorites is Corey’s Coming, an odd story of a man who imagines a lover and tells his young friend all about her. I won’t give away the rest of this story. You can hear it for yourself.

I’ll just mention two more. One is one of the last songs that he recorded called: Oh Man which includes words which once moved me in ways that are too private and personal to describe here:

Now it must feel so very strange to have to throw away all the lines that you have learned and force yourself to change.

So many are so beautiful. Take a moment to listen to Vacancy, Tangled Up Puppet, Dance
Band on the Titanic and the sequel to Taxi, called appropriately enough: Sequel. The words
and music that accompany them are gems, as are so many others.

I’ll end here and leave the rest for that long planned essay. I’ll end with the
lyrics which are always, always in my mind.

All my Life’s a Circle
Sunrise and Sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime
Till the daybreak comes around.
All my Life’s a Circle
But I can’t tell you why
The seasons spinning round again
The years keep rolling by.

The years that roll by are richer as we still have these beautiful songs and stories
to accompany us.

Rest in peace, Harry.


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