Harry Chapin
Photo: Elektra Records PR photo via Wikimedia

The 20 Best Harry Chapin Songs

In his brief folk singer-songwriter career, Harry Chapin’s philosophy of symbolic action challenged the American status quo on behalf of those suffering from indifference.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve got into a conversation about music with someone here in England, my mention of Harry Chapin was met with blank expressions. As for the UK’s music press, I vaguely recall seeing one or two of his songs in a Top 100 Songs of All Time feature published a decade ago. That list would include his songs “Taxi”, perhaps, or more likely, “W*O*L*D”.  I’d assume that his name is more familiar in the US, though I don’t see him being discussed widely in the American music press either.

So, who was Harry Chapin? The bare facts are that Chapin was born in New York City in 1942 and was killed in a motor accident on Long Island in 1981. His musical career was brief, not even a decade long: 1972-80. And he was an exceptional man.

Even while creating a substantial canon in his eight-year musical career, Harry Chapin tirelessly challenged – and in some cases changed – the status quo on behalf of those he saw suffering from its indifference. He was a model of commitment. Chapin’s motto was “When in doubt, do something!” Director Rick Korn’s 2020 documentary, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something, features contributions from such musical luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pat Benatar, and Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniel.

Harry Chapin and Radio DJ Bill Ayres founded the activist organization WhyHunger in 1975 on the fundamental belief that access to nutritious food is a human right and hunger is a solvable problem in a world of abundance. What began as a simple commitment between two friends to make a positive difference has grown into a global non-profit organization, celebrating over 40 years of supporting social movements and grassroots innovations to change the systems, policies, and institutions that perpetuate hunger and poverty in our world. WhyHunger has proven that change is possible and that justice can prevail. Indeed, Chapin gave countless benefit concerts for WhyHunger and many other causes. Undoubtedly, his example was an inspiration and model for Live Aid in 1985, as confirmed by its main instigator, Bob Geldof. 

Before his musical career took off, Harry Chapin worked on film projects. They include a short untitled documentary about the hunger challenge in Ethiopia, made in 1968 for the World Bank Group. More surprisingly, he directed a 1968 film about boxing heroes, Legendary Champions, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The discipline required of filmmaking fed into his songs, which are often explorations in narrative. He wanted to explore his contemporary America by giving shape and significance to the lives of a range of its people, including those who were apparently unremarkable. This led him to pioneer a particular kind of lyric – what he called “story song”. 

Where he felt it necessary, Chapin used his lyrical skill to confront the various forms of injustice evident in society. He wasn’t one to be shy about exposing the economic and political factors preventing the many from realising their potential while aiding the few to feather their own nests. He was proud to be described as a ‘protest singer’, given his insistence on the freedom to dissent from political orthodoxy and admiration for Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs’ work dedicated to environmentalism, civil rights, and pacifism.

Harry Chapin’s Grandfather

Harry Chapin’s grandfather – poet, critic, and radical social theorist Kenneth Burke – deeply influenced Chapin. In the mid-’70s, Chapin planned to make a film about Burke, and he set about interviewing him. Unfortunately, the film was never completed, though in 2014, the Kenneth Burke Society released an edited 15-minute version on DVD, KB: A Conversation with Kenneth Burke.

The main subject of the filmed discussion is KB’s central statement in his essay, “Definition of Man”, included in his book, Language as Symbolic Action (1966). The focus is on the list of human characteristics with which the essay ends:

Man is
the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
and rotten with perfection.

Chapin’s widow, Sandy, has confirmed his fascination with this definition: he kept it in his notebook and continually returned to it. (A detailed analysis of KB’s “Definition of Man” is also included in my 2016 essay, “Green Theory“)

As for Chapin’s “story songs”, just as his grandfather demonstrated what a complex and often contradictory figure the human being is, so too Chapin would no more think of simplifying the lives of the subjects of his songs than he would of simplifying his own. He was always interested in how people come to terms with themselves and their world.

As for Chapin, the “protest singer”, he was also deeply indebted to his grandfather for encouraging him always to make connections – whether linguistic, social, or political. Chapin’s was among the most enquiring minds in ’70s-era popular music. With his urge to know, there was an urge to speak and act. Indeed, his songs were brilliant examples of “symbolic action”.

Following is an annotated list of 20 Harry Chapin songs I find most interesting and impressive. For convenience, I’ve divided them into the broad categories of “Songs of Protest” and “Story of Songs”, though it will become clear that the line between them is thin. In each case, I’ve listed them in the order in which I would have liked to have discovered them. I recommend Michael Francis Taylor’s 2019 book, Harry Chapin: The Music Behind the Man, for a more detailed analysis of Harry Chapin’s lyrics,

Songs of Protest

“Cry for My Country (I Can Hear My Country Crying)”
Greatest Stories Live (1976)

The USA is in a desperate state, Chapin is telling us. It has reached the end of the promises of its founding myths. There are no more heroes. Its citizens seem to have stopped caring. The government has abdicated its responsibilities.

“Cry for My Country” asks, are we simply going to “watch her fade away?” Here is a distillation of the spirit of protest, which Chapin continually wanted to affirm.

“Song for Myself
Short Stories (1973)

There may be a nod to Walt Whitman’s poem, Song of Myself, in the title of this song, thus giving it American credentials. As it stands, “Song for Myself” would seem to be provocatively ambiguous. Yes, but Chapin is singing for himself – trying to express his opinion as strongly as possible – but in doing so, he is trying to express solidarity with others. He is objecting to people writing songs that evade their responsibilities to others. 

“Song for Myself” is a powerful lament about the apparent demise of protest music and the loss of the political awareness that characterised the early ’60s. His stance is uncompromising. He complains,  “But no one’s wrote a protest song / Since nineteen sixty three. / Are we all gonna listen to the moldy gold / And say just let it be?” It took a brave man to challenge the wisdom of the Beatles at that time.

“What Made America Famous
Verities and Balderdash (1974)

Evidently inspired by a real-life incident, “this song “What Made America Famous” doesn’t generalise as one might expect from the title. It depicts a specific challenge to the establishment: a household of dropouts or hippies.

One night, a fire breaks out, perhaps started deliberately. The main body of volunteer firefighters don’t rush to the scene, given their disapproval of the building’s occupants. But one of these firefighters (in his other job, he’s a plumber) does his best to save them. That spirit of compassion is lauded by Harry Chapin as offering some hope for the country. “What Made America Famous” is a grand gesture of a song.

“The Parade’s Still Passing By”
On the Road to Kingdom Come (1976)

This is a meditation by Chapin on his hero Phil Ochs – written very soon after the latter’s death. Ochs had been the archetypal protest singer, who had performed at many a rally. However, he started suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and alcoholism. He took his own life in 1976. 

Prompted by the news that Ochs had towards the end of his life refused to play at a rally because his records ‘never made number one’, Chapin offers his riposte: ‘But it’s not just the words, / It’s the deeds that are heard, / When all is said and done.’ Once, Ochs’ words had indeed been deeds, symbolic acts that inspired millions to take up various causes, but he would seem to have lost faith in them. Chapin honours him by incorporating the titles of some of his songs in his own.

“The Shortest Story”
Greatest Stories Live (1976)

This song title might suggest that this counts as a “story song”, but it really is a work of uncompromising protest. It distils the problem of world hunger into a two-minute song. The story is so short because the child whose perspective we see has very little time to live. “The Shortest Story” is a profound and disconcerting song.

Sequel (1980)

The title song of Chapin’s second album, Sequel, is based on a real event. In August 1966, in Austin, Texas, a former US marine named Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother before committing a mass shooting from the top of a clock tower on the campus of the University of Texas. Eighteen people were killed and 31 wounded. Eventually, the police managed to intervene, killing him in the process. 

Chapin’s “Sniper”, which tactfully does not name the protagonist, attempts to get inside Whitman’s head to understand what could have motivated him to carry out this atrocity. More broadly, what does this event say about the US, with its cult of violence, lack of psychiatric support, and absurdly weak gun control?

Ambitious both thematically and musically, this ten-minute song could be counted as a “story song”, but it is more of an extended cry of protest. “Sniper” is deeply disturbing without being exploitative.

“Remember When the Music – Reprise”
Sequel (1980)

This track is the slower of the two versions that are featured on the Sequel album. Here, Harry Chapin runs the risk of appearing to be naïve and sentimental about the early ’60s: its spirit of idealism, informed by the songs that activists and campaigners would listen to. When he performed “Remember When the Music – Reprise” in concerts in 1980, after the album’s release, he would dedicate it to his friend Al Lowenstein. This Democrat politician had campaigned tirelessly for civil rights and world peace and was murdered by his student, Dennis Sweeney. 

Chapin’s nostalgia for a politically engaged populace isn’t shallow: it matters to him that protest movements of the era and their music are constantly recalled and reaffirmed, lest we forget the causes that really matter. “Remember When the Music – Reprise” complements his earlier “Song for Myself” and “There Only Was One Choice”.

“Barefoot Boy”
Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972)

“Barefoot Boy” is a praise poem to a young man who loves the countryside and hates what humankind is doing to Earth. If we encounter him, we should learn from his example. It’s as simple as that.

Harry Chapin would have known from his study of world hunger how often it relates to the abuse of the natural world by those in power. Like his grandfather KB, he was an early green campaigner.

“Dance Band on the Titanic
Dance Band on the Titanic (1977)

Harry Chapin’s Dance Band on the Titanic album is a significant statement. The title track is based on a well-known event that, over the decades, has assumed more symbolic power. Here, Chapin takes the story of the Titanic ship’s journey to disaster and death and applies it to the current economic situation in the US.

Just as the first-class passengers had lifeboats while the third-class passengers had none, the inequality in the country is worsening. Just as the band kept playing as the ship went down to distract the passengers, too much music these days only diverges from the socio-political crisis. 


“There Only Was One Choice”
Dance Band on the Titanic (1977)

From the Titanic album, this 14-minute long track might well be counted as a “story song”, but its overall purpose is protest. 

“There Was Only One Choice” tells the story of Harry Chapin’s life in relation to American society and to American Popular Song. It begins with him seeing his younger self starting out with his acoustic guitar, singing on the street. Eventually, the mature Chapin speaks in the first person and reflects ruefully on how his career has gone, as he’s tried to stay true to the roots of the music he loves, from Woody Guthrie onwards – not forgetting the blues. He sneers at the critics who dismiss committed music and endorse only commercial music, no matter how banal and stultifying. There follows a strangely prescient section in which he anticipates his death, followed by his reflection on whether he should sell out to commercialism. 

Ultimately, “There Was Only One Choice” culminates in a self-justification for taking the musical and lyrical direction he has chosen – addressing injustices in American society.

“One Light in a Dark Valley (An Imitation Spiritual)
Dance Band on the Titanic (1977)

This may seem to be the simplest of songs, but it needs to be lingered on. It has been overlooked, but for me, it has great significance. The song – both music and lyrics – was written by KB, and Harry Chapin clearly included it on the Dance Band on the Titanic album as an act of homage to his grandfather – perhaps as an apology for not completing the film about him. 

“One Light in a Dark Valley” is a deceptively simple song depicting three different conditions: firstly, being alone in a dark valley with just one light to serve as guide; secondly, being alone in a dark valley with no light to serve as guide; thirdly, entering into a state of total light, as a result of summoning up the power of God. We can depict a similar pattern in spirituals, with the congregation lamenting their state of suffering and then calling on God to be redeemed.

KB wrote extensively on the Bible without necessarily being a believer. From Genesis, we learn that there was initially darkness and formlessness, but God declared: “Let there be light.” “In the beginning was the Word”, we learn from the Gospel of John. If God is the Logos, the everlasting Word, He can be seen as embodying the power of language – symbolic action. We may call on Him: “Come on and make the heavens so brightly mine.”  But what we are really doing is affirming the inspirational force of human words as a means to human liberation. Aligned with music, of course, they are all the more powerful.

As we’ve learned, Chapin’s songs were consistently put to that purpose of liberation. That, surely, is the goal of all songs of protest.

Story of Songs

Heads and Tales (1972)

“Taxi” is a song about regret, about lives that didn’t go as intended. A taxi driver called Harry (undoubtedly due to Harry Chapin’s early experience of that job) is hailed by a woman he soon begins to recognise, and he addresses her as “Sue”. In time, she realises who he is, and they bond briefly over their memories of youthful ambition. 

This lengthy song is said to owe much to Chapin’s interest in cinema. One can imagine it being filmed, with the story unfolding as the camera pans from one character to another. The slow narrative revelation is compelling.

“Any Old Kind of Day
Heads and Tales (1972)

“Any Old Kind of Day” is one of Harry Chapin’s most beautiful songs: a moving depiction of melancholy in the form of a “day in the life”. The persona – who may well represent Chapin but who is just as likely to represent you or me – is overwhelmed by the lack of fulfilment in his life. It’s preoccupied with the passing of time and the constant need to tell oneself that tomorrow may bring what yesterday and today have failed to bring. We can identify with that mood.

Short Stories (1973)

“W*O*L*D” song brilliantly conveys the sense of futility that can go with the role of DJ.  We know that Harry Chapin worked well with the ’60s radical Bill Ayres, but in this song, he wonders: what is the point of an ageing man striving desperately to keep his finger on the pop music market’s pulse and immerse himself in the current youth culture? He also wonders: what does that tell us about his life? 

Chapin wrote “W*O*L*D” after meeting a DJ whose wife complained that, having separated some years before, he never came to see his children. The DJ knows he is at fault but tries to convey the impression of a relaxed and happy man. Appropriately, ‘W*O*L*D’ is the Chapin song that comes closest to pure “pop”, as is ironically appropriate.

“Short Stories”
Short Stories (1973)

This compelling song brilliantly articulates Harry Chapin’s fascination with past and present. Life is a narrative, but instead of taking the shape of a novel, it takes the shape of … yes, a series of short stories! If life is a journey, it has many staging posts around which a story can take shape. Only by looking back can we trace any connection and discover any meaning. However, Chapin’s forcefully dramatic delivery in “Short Stories” would suggest that this is not always guaranteed.  

“Cat’s in the Cradle”
Verities and Balderdash (1974)

This is a song about a father-son relationship, based on a poem written by Sandy Chapin. The father puts his career before taking time to bond with his son, and so the inevitable happens. There’s brilliant irony in the line, “I’m gonna be like you, Dad”. Perhaps the lyric appealed to Harry Chapin because he was away from home so often touring or campaigning.

“Cat’s in the Cradle” is a perfect Harry Chapin song, and probably his most famous. 

“Shooting Star
Verities and Balderdash (1974)

Harry Chapin once claimed that he wrote this song about KB and his wife Lily, though it could also be interpreted as referring to Chapin himself and his wife, Sandy. Certainly, “Shooting Star” is about a man who is unorthodox and regarded as “crazy” by some.

The academic establishment often mocked KB’s ideas; those who just wanted the same old commercial pop dismissed Chapin’s attempt to write intelligent, campaigning music. Grandfather and grandson stood outside the social system, making their opinions clear. Again, in both cases, they could only sustain their stances thanks to the love and support of their partners. “Shooting Star” is an exhilarating and inspiring song.  

“Star Tripper
Portrait Gallery (1975)

In “Star Tripper”, Harry Chapin may be singing about himself or referring to any musician who becomes a celebrity. Either way, this is a song about the price of fame.

“Star Tripper” asks, What’s the point of being a great success if it means distancing himself from his family? More broadly, he reflects that being on a trip to stardom renders one inhuman. “Star Tripper” may be complementary to “Cat’s in the Cradle” and “Shooting Star”. 

“Everybody’s Lonely
Heads and Tales (1972)

Here is a bleak existentialist statement in the guise of a melodic song of disappointed love. Author Francis Taylor suggests that “Everybody’s Lonely” reflects the sense of isolation that Harry Chapin felt as a child and teenager. That may well be a factor.

“Everybody’s Lonely” proposes that solitude is the one basic fact of life. As for discovering a way out of that condition, the odds are against finding love and a sense of belonging. This is an intriguing song, as the bleak message is offset by the beauty of the music, with its memorably elegant refrain. 

“Corey’s Coming”
On the Road to Kingdom Come (1976)

In “Corey’s Coming”, a young man tells of his frequent visits to an old, neglected railway station, where he loves hearing the stories of John Joseph, the old man left in charge. One story of a woman he once knew called Corey holds a particular fascination for him. John Joseph is convinced that one day Corey will return, which leaves the young man perplexed and concerned. He wonders whether the old man is merely indulging in a fantasy.

When John Joseph dies, the young man attends the funeral – which is when he finds out. This is a tale superbly structured and beautifully sung. 

Sequel (1980)

Harry Chapin never stopped looking for ways to depict the form in which a life story can be told. Where elsewhere he might imply that it is a linear narrative, in “Circle”, he opts for the model of eternal recurrence. Where the idea that events keep repeating might induce a sense of absurdity, Chapin sees scope for affirmation. We might say that the ghost of Friedrich Nietzsche haunts “Circle”.  

Sequel (1980)

The Sequel album’s title song is the resolution of the story told in “Taxi”. Ten years on, Harry is no longer a taxi driver, no longer dependent on drugs to get him through life, and has become a successful singer. But he is still curious about Sue.

Calling at her house he learns that she is no longer living there. Her forwarding address takes him to a modest apartment in the city. Though her circumstances might have deteriorated, she has found peace and is glad to explain why. 

Chapin was taking a risk by revisiting “Taxi”‘s story and in doing so at such length (“Sequel” lasts nearly seven minutes). However, the song was a huge success, demonstrating that his story song format still appealed to fans. 

Works Cited

Coupe, Laurence. Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology. Parlor Press. 2013

Chapin, Sandy. “Harry Chapin: American Troubadour”’, pp. 2-3,”. Story of a Life. Elektra. 1999.

Taylor, Michael Francis. Harry Chapin: The Music Behind the Man. New Haven Publishing. 2019.