Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Man Who Wrote The Story Songs

Back in the 70's I became a fan of singer/songwriter Harry Chapin after hearing his epic ballad, "Taxi," about a down-on-his-luck cab driver who picks up a fare that turns out to be an ex-lover from his teenage years. Long ago they'd parted ways to seek their dreams, and in this brief cab ride the story of their lives and unrealized dreams is played out in bittersweet fashion.

It's a long time since I'd listened to Harry Chapin. Last week I spotted a newly released package of five of Harry's albums and I snapped it up, eager and curious to revisit the past myself, if only for a short while.

Harry was known as one of the main proponents of the "storysong," or 'folk/rock ballad," which had become popular in the late 60's, early 70's. Harry's songs, some of them more than five minutes in duration, were like mini-movies, telling tales of life with a hauntingly reflective, emotive pull.

Harry's songs were the kind to which people from all walks of life could relate. What surprised me, all these years down the line, was that those songs were even more topical and relevant now than they were back then. One of the hallmarks of a great storyteller is the timelessness of his tales, regardless of the medium in which they are told. So hats (and beanies etc.) raised now to Harry Chapin.

Many will know Harry's song, "Cat's In The Cradle," the story of a father and son, a No 1 hit for Harry in 1974, and a top 10 hit again in the 90's for rockers Ugly Kid Joe. Another of Harry's hits, "W-O-L-D," takes us on a road trip with an ageing DJ, "feeling all of 45, going on 15," trying to relive past glories. It was one of several inspirations for the producers of 70's tv series, "WKRP in Cincinnati."

Another song, "Sniper," is a riveting, multi-layered lyric and melody, told from several points of view, of a tragic mass shooting. If there is a song more revealing and insightful now than even back in the 70's, then it is this one.

One of my favourites, "Mr. Tanner," has insights to which every writer, singer, actor, musician, or creative artist can identify. It's the story of a small town tailor, loved by the townspeople not just for his tailoring, but for his beautiful baritone voice. Mr. Tanner always sings in his shop and his friends and customers encourage him to sing professionally.

The story of his debut, and of the harsh comments by critical snobs will bring a lump to your throat and a tear to even the most hardened eye. Check out this link to a performance of the song and I don't like to make guarantees, but you'd have to be a robot not to be moved by "Mr. Tanner."

Harry recorded and performed widely throughout the 1970's. He was also an active humanitarian, co-founding the World Hunger Year Organization, and in 1987 he was posthumously awarded the U.S Congressional Gold Medal. He was taken from us too soon, the result of a heart attack and car accident at just age 38, in 1981.

Perhaps the most fitting way to close this post about the man who wrote the storysongs, is from his epitah (taken from his song,"I Wonder What Would Happen To This World");

"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."