Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Chapin -- "Cat's in the Cradle" (1974)

I’ve long since retired, my son's moved away

I called him up just the other day
I said "I'd like to see you if you don’t mind"
He said "I'd love to Dad, if I could find the time." . . .
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He'd grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

This is my 100th post of 2010, and I wanted it to be something a little out of the ordinary.  

So I invited Carl Wiser, the man responsible for the very successful "Songfacts" website (, to be a guest writer -- only the second guest writer in the history of 2 or 3 lines.  

Songfacts is a wonderful website if you're a music fan.  I discovered it only recently, and now visit it regularly.  You'll be seeing more links and references to Songfacts content in future 2 or 3 lines posts.

The "Songfacts" home page
Carl started Songfacts over a decade ago when he was a disc jockey in Hartford, Connecticut.  It was originally a database with miscellaneous facts and trivia that DJs could use when they introduced the songs they played on the radio.  

In 1999, Carl put the database online.  At that time, it had information about only 400 or so songs, but it grew rapidly once non-DJ music fans discovered it.  The site really started to take off when it was named a "Yahoo! Pick" in 2002.  Today, Songfacts has info on 21,000 songs.

Believe me, boys and girls, you can burn up a LOT of time perusing Singfacts.  First, you can search by song title or artist's name -- and one search will lead to another, and another, and another.

Eric Burdon
You can read interviews with a wide variety of musicians -- ranging from Eric Burdon to Al Kooper to Devo to the Dropkick Murphys (just to name a few that interested me).  

And you can read and post to the Songfacts message boards, which have discussions of thousands of topics grouped into a dozen or so broad categories.

There's a lot more on the Songfacts site, but that will get you started.

(Some of you probably are wondering if I will plug your website if you write a guest post for me.  The answer is "yes" -- IF you have such a worthy website to plug, and IF you tell as good a story as Carl did.  I'd love to have some more free content, folks, but I'm not about to lower my very high standards to get it!)

Many of you are no doubt familiar with "Cat's in the Cradle," which was a #1 hit for Harry Chapin in 1974.  If you're not, you only need to hear it once to figure it out.  Its meaning is pretty transparent.

This song tells the story of a young father who is just too busy with work to pay much attention to his young son.  Eventually, the father retires and has all the time in the world to spend with his now grown-up son.  But his son is just too busy to find any time for him.  (Payback's a bitch, ain't it?)  

I'll now let Carl Wiser tell the story behind the lyrics to "Cat's in the Cradle."  That stiory is based on his conversation with Harry Chapin's widow, Sandy, whose poem was the basis for the song's lyrics.   (Click here to read Carl's interview of Sandy Chapin in its entirety.  It's fascinating -- as are so many of the interviews on
It took me three years to track down Sandy Chapin.  "Cat's In The Cradle" is a very important song for me, and she wrote the words.  Dad was just a sporadic presence in my life, and he told me that this song hit him hard.  I found this comforting, because it meant that he knew he should be doing better, and in the end our roles would reverse, which they did.
I wanted to learn the story behind the song -- what inspired it and what it means to Sandy.  It's a therapy song, and a message to fathers everywhere: value your children.  Released in 1974, "Cat's In The Cradle" was a #1 hit, but by the '00s it was falling off playlists -- too soft for Classic Rock stations, too old for Adult Contemporary.  Ugly Kid Joe gave it the grunge treatment in 1992, but the song deserves better. 

Tracking down the writer was my way of honoring the song and nudging it back into the collective conscious.  Also, I wanted to know what Harry Chapin was really like.

I had seen Sandy Chapin described as a "socialite," and failing to practice non-judgment, I began to picture her as privileged and flighty.  After the death of her husband Harry Chapin in a 1981 automobile crash, she set up the Harry Chapin Foundation (, which politely took my messages every few months but never seemed to know where Ms. Chapin was or when she might appear.

When I finally got the elusive interview, I found out why it took so long: Sandy Chapin is a full-time grandmother.  With 6 grandchildren to manage, any time left over is spent on the foundation.  Not quite a socialite after all.

Sandy was a school teacher, married with three kids, when she decided to learn guitar so she could play songs with the children.  Getting a babysitter while she took her lessons wasn't practical, so she put it off until a struggling Cornell-educated musician named Harry Chapin offered to bring the lessons to her. 

Harry and Sandy Chapin
While her husband played poker downstairs, Harry taught Sandy to play guitar, and after the lessons he'd hang around and play her some of the songs he'd written. You can probably guess what happened next, but a romanticized version of the story appears in Harry's song "I Wanna Learn a Love Song." 
Sandy did a lot of writing, and after she and Harry got married in 1968, she put together a poem that would become the lyrics to "Cat's In The Cradle." 

On long drives, she listened to country music, and a song came on that described an older couple sitting at their breakfast table.  Looking out their window, they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox -- reminders of when their children and grandchildren would come to play, but those days are gone.  She took this image and combined it with the idea that we learn life's lessons after the fact, and she wrote her poem.
Harry read the poem, but it didn't move him until he became a father.  When their son Josh was born, Harry found his connection with the poem and put it to music.  It also made a great story at his wonderfully intimate concerts, as he would explain how his wife wrote the poem to zap him about not being home when Josh was born.

Harry Chapin and his son
It was a bit of poetic license, but the real-life inspiration wouldn't fit so nicely in a song introduction.  The real story is that Sandy's first husband was the son of the long-time borough president of Brooklyn, who devoted a lot more time to his political career than to his son. 

Sandy told me: 
"They did not have any relationship or communication because they had been so busy until his son went off to college and was gone.  I don't remember exactly how, but he started talking to me. My father-in-law would say – and this is when we were all in the same room – and yet he would say to me, 'Tell Jimmy I would like to see him down at the clubhouse on Tuesday.' 

"It was really very strange.  The conversation was going through me.  So I realized what had happened.  You know, relationships and characters and personalities and all those things are formed by two, so I realized that that hadn't happened.  And it was very jerky at that stage. So I observed something that gave me the idea for the song."
Harry Chapin was a brilliant songwriter and a dedicated supporter of the arts.  He spread himself thin, helping to raise funds for cultural institutions around Long Island, while also taking on causes like cleaning up the Hudson River.  Harry earned his legacy as a great humanitarian, but it was Sandy Chapin who continued his work, setting up his foundation, which she continues to run. 

The world moves a lot faster now than it did in 1974, and there are far more ways for parents to ignore their kids and vice-versa. "Cat's In The Cradle," and the meaning behind it are more relevant than ever. 

Sandy went on to say:

"The eldest of the 6 grandchildren has just gone into 6th grade, which means not only does she live in a community where the kids grow up fast, but now she's in a middle school where everybody thinks they're teenagers and ought to be in high school.  So you know, you have to grab those years. 

"It used to be when I would drive up to the house, she would jump out and run and greet me, and say, 'Grandma, what's the project for today?'  Because I would always bring some arts and crafts.  We'd make Thanksgiving place cards, or Christmas tree ornaments.  But all through the year I was always doing projects with them.  So now she's answering her e-mail, she's on her cell phone and doing dates, walking around town with her friends, being a grownup, and doing all the after school activities. You have to grab that chance when you have it."
Ain't that the truth, boys and girls.  There's an old joke to the effect that no man's dying words were "I wish I had spent more time at the office."  But I think all fathers wish they had spent more time with their children.  I'm 20 years older than Harry Chapin was when he died, and I am thankful for that (and sorry for him) mainly because it means I've been blessed with 20 more years with my children than he had with his.

Thanks to Carl Wiser for sharing the story of "Cat's in the Cradle."  Carl, I'm going to be asking you to contribute to "2 or 3 lines" again very soon.

Here's "Cat's in the Cradle":

Here's Chapin performing the song live, preceded by some video of Sandy and their son, Josh -- who looks exactly like his father:

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from iTunes:

Verities & Balderdash - Harry Chapin

And here's a link to use if you prefer Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post. A song's back story is sometimes almost as good as (sometimes even better than!) the song itself.

    I've spent quite a bit of time browsing around since I found out about it. Lots of good stuff!