I know the record and roughly the date, but I don’t know why. The record was Legends of the Lost and Found, a live double album from 1979. I borrowed it from my local lending library some time in the summer of 1981 (there’s that connection again – I owe so much to the local library system in the UK). I don’t remember why I borrowed it – Harry Chapin wasn’t famous, I don’t think anyone had recommended it, maybe it was just the cover that caught my eye and I thought I’d give it a listen.
And I found one of the best, most underrated singer-songwriters I’ve ever heard.
Harry Chapin told stories in song and he peopled those stories with characters. Some were romantic, some tragic, some melancholy, many funny. Some of them were clearly very personal. And many of those stories touched something inside me. Sure, some of it’s sentimental, even occasionally corny, but by and large those stories that he sings pack an emotional punch that really hits home.
His songs about life were relatable – I’ve never had a teenage daughter, but Tangled-Up Puppet nevertheless feels very real. And Cats in the Cradle tells an all-too-believable story of a father too busy working to see his son growing up.
And then there’s the story of Harry Chapin himself, of the literally hundreds of charity concerts he performed (one of the big missing figures from Live Aid – Harry had been campaigning against poverty and hunger for years), the causes he supported. And the Congressional Gold Medal granted posthumously in 1986, following his tragic death in a car accident in 1981.
I was at University in 1981, and had rapidly become a big fan. Listening to his live albums, like Legends of the Lost and Found or Greatest Stories Live which seemed so much fun, I really wanted to see him in concert. And I got a chance – he would be playing just up the road in Newcastle. But there was something happening in college that night, so I didn’t go, figuring I’d see him next time he toured. He died a few months later, so I’d missed my only chance. 34 years later, I’m still regretting that.
And I still get choked up listening to Corey’s Coming or A Better Place to Be or Dreams Go By.
Why I chose that album in the record library I don’t know. But it was a very lucky find.
If you don’t know Harry Chapin’s songs, please have a root around on YouTube and listen. Try Greatest Stories Live – it opens with a typical joke, goes into Dreams Go By (an interesting mix of a jaunty melody with some oddly melancholy lyrics), then on to his “hit” W.O.L.D. and on through a very representative set, through to The Shortest Story, which may be the most moving and tragic song I’ve ever heard.
If you only have time for a couple of songs:
A Better Place to Be: two sad stories in one, but with a promise of happiness.
You Are the Only Song: such a beautiful love song from a geat songwriter to his loved one – “After all is said and done, you’re the one song that I need.” Makes you want to start a career as a singer just so you could close your concert singing this to the person you love.
Tangled Up Puppet: Whether you have daughters or sons, you’ll recognise the bittersweet sentiment of seeing your children change as they grow up.
Story of a Life: possibly my favourite Harry Chapin song – just lovely lyrics. I’m writing this with moist eyes – this song never fails to hit home.