35 years without Harry Chapin


On July 16, 1981, Harry Chapin flipped on his emergency flashers on the Long Island Expressway and slowed down to about 15 miles an hour before swerving across the highway and colliding with a semi. After he was airlifted to a hospital, ten doctors spent 30 minutes trying to revive him to no avail. The protest singer – who had been on his way to a give a free concert in East Meadow, New York – was just 38 years old.

On the 35th anniversary of his death, it’s hard to separate Chapin from what will likely be his most-enduring song: Cat’s in the Cradle.

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The 1974 song was inspired by a poem his wife, Sandra “Sandy” Gaston, penned about “the awkward relationship between her first husband, James Cashmore, and his father, John, a politician who served as Brooklyn Borough President.”

“Whenever I was on a long drive I would listen to country music, because words would keep me awake more than just music,” Sandy said in an interview. “And I heard a song… I can remember the story, but I don’t remember who sang it or what the title was, but an old couple were sitting at their breakfast table and looking out the window, and they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox, and they were reminiscing about the good old days when all the children were around and then the grandchildren, and how it passed, and now it’s all gone.

“The other part of the idea – this is always a problem, because Harry introduced the song at all his concerts and said, ‘This is a song my wife wrote to zap me because I wasn’t home when our son Josh was born.’ I was always kind of amused by that because of the fact that we learn life’s lessons too late. We don’t learn lessons before the fact. We don’t have a child born and then have all this wisdom. So I always thought it was interesting the way he told the story.”

The lyrics are haunting, in large part, because they incorporate nursery rhymes, which most of us associate with happy childhoods. The song subverts that happy relationship:

“Basically ‘the cats in the cradle’ is the son and the ‘silver spoon’ is the father in the sense that the son is at home while the father is away making money to feed (silver spoon) and take care of the child’s welfare,” writes a user on SongMeanings.com.

“‘Little boy blue and the man on the moon’ explains how far away they are from each other… a little boy on the earth compared to his father who is so far away he might as well be in space. And the fact that he says all of this using several nursery rhymes put together…is just ingenious.”

Chapin’s buried in Huntingon, New York. His headstone includes this epitaph taken from his 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

They’re words to live by.

Photo credit: Elektra Records.

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7 comments to “35 years without Harry Chapin”
  1. I was on a different part of the L.I.E. headed home when this happend. “Taxi” was playing on a stereo. Sad day indeed for music lovers everywhere.

  2. Has anyone watched Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? The episode with Sarah Jessica Parker. They are driving down that highway and Jerry points out that Harry Chapin had died right there. Sarah, pointed out that she worked with Harry right before his accident. It was interesting to me and they ended that episode with the song Harry and Sarah sang together!

  3. Remember listening to WOLD when I was a teenager. I then recall the song Cats Cradle. He was a great songwriter. I rediscovered his work recently. His writing will live on!

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