Inside the
Summer Issue:

Home Page

For Bruce Springsteen,
"Do Something" Means
Many Things.

The Beat of a
Different Drummer:
An Interview
with Jim Chapin

Students Use
Pocket Change
to Make a
Big Difference

Cancer Patient
Cites Harry's
Message as Key
to Survival

The Power
of Design(ers)

Harry Chapin
Freedom of Choice

Goat Tales

The Cat's
in the Cradle...

Letter to
the Editor


Long Island
Songwriters Plan
"Sequel" Benefit
Tribute Concert

Howard Fields and
Al Stewart in
Concert to
Benefit KIDS Can
Make a Difference

Readers Share Thoughts
in Second Annual
Circle! Survey

Circle Calendar


photo of Harry Chapin
by Steve Stout

Harry Chapin Freedom of Choice

by J.M. Holt

Editor’s Note: The following article was originally published in ‘The News’ Toronto, Ontario in April, 1978, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

Harry Chapin is hardly your average folkie; he's not your average rocker either. Most artists today (in 1978) deny any socio-political overtones in their music or lifestyles. "We just wanna rock 'n' roll man and have a good's a great way to meet the ladies ya know!?!" is the usual response to 'what are you trying to say?'

The second greatest let down(s) of the sixties and seventies, after watching the youth majority of America re-elect Richard Nixon to the highest office in the land for four more years, had to be that Bob Dylan wasn't political, and The Beatles couldn't do much more for world peace than Let It Be, without peace.

...Harry Chapin seems to be the only active superstar in the seventies with any kind of conscience. He's been panned by John Rockwell of the New York Times, and ignored by Rolling Stone for nearly four years with the exception of the ignoble dedication to the 'worst-song of the year award' which was called the Harry Chapin Award. It is good to note that ninety-eight percent of all performers today do not use the narrative ballad form which Chapin has mastered. The Times of London, England recently picked Dance Band On the Titanic as the best album of the year.

Chapin takes his early experiences as a filmmaker, (He was nominated for an academy award for his Legendary Champions of 1969, which also won the New York Film Fest) and translates his ability to evoke images into song.

Chapin was tired when I sat down with him three hours before the show at Guelph University. He had played Hamilton and London on the early part of the weekend and flown to Washington between dates to meet with Jimmy Carter, seven senators and eight congressmen to come to an agreement on the final resolution for the Presidential Commission on Domestic and International Hunger. Chapin has been active in this cause for over four years, and this particular battle has been waged for eight months. Up until now there has been no cohesive programme in America to cope with hunger, and although there is enough food to feed everyone on this continent five times, people everywhere are starving.

In the world this is tragic; in North America it is just plain stupid.

The first year of Chapin's programme will combine and evaluate the present work underway against hunger, both domestic and international. The second year will be spent disseminating the information so that people will understand and come to terms with the problem and implement recommendations politically to bring an end to this unnecessary anachronism of civilization. All of this work will be done in the current presidential term to avoid further delays. The resolution went before both Houses in the States and passed Congress by a vote of 364 to 38 and was passed unanimously in the Senate. The presidential resolution is being drafted this week and should be signed within two weeks.

"Riding A Dinosaur Into Disaster"

Says Chapin,

"We live in a participatory democracy and we've forgotten how to participate. In the sixties I used to shoot my big mouth off about successful people not taking a more active role in the problems of society, so when I became successful I had to put up or shut up..."

(...and Harry isn't likely to shut up while such a large percent of the population go to bed undernourished.)

"The problem is you cannot have meaningful family planning when half your children are dying before they are six years old.

"The music from '61 to '67 was close to the lifestyle; now, (1978), it's adjunct to the lifestyle. Today is very stimulating because music is coming out of a real torpor. I don't think there is much of a world in the future. Everyone with children has a responsibility to change that. I think our present lifestyle is a lie. We simply waste too much, and we are going to go through a massive depression. People in power today are uniquely bereft of vision; they just don't have any answers. It's partly the responsibility of the voters; the people who as Eric Hoffer says, 'don't want freedom of choice so much as freedom from choice."

Chapin is also in conversation with such people as Ralph Nader in the work for the Consumer Bill which comes up again for the fourth vote since 1971. Chapin is lobbying against the Commerce Department which has a budget of one billion seven hundred million dollars and is supposedly worried about a $15 million budget for the Consumer Bill.

Chapin refers to himself as a "theoretical pessimist and an actual optimist."

"I assume we are going to be able to do something because any other assumption is unconscionable. You can't act like there's no hope or you might as well commit suicide."

For starters he suggests you read Food First, by Francis Walter Penny and Diet for a Small Planet and Global Reach by Joe Collins, as well as How The Other Half Dies by Susan Brown, and the works of Jim Hightower. After the reading, Chapin makes the following suggestions, especially to anyone eighteen or nineteen years old:

"First of all realize that your own personal, social, economic, political and emotional well-being is based on the fact that you are not going to hide from these situations but run towards them. There are tremendous opportunities in public service, even in terms of money-making. If you're willing for three or four years after graduating to work in public service for little money or no pay at all, you'll end up after three or four years at being offered much more high-paying jobs because you'll have met a lot of people in power; you'll have had a chance to grow and show what you can effectively do.

"If you get an offer at fifteen or even twenty thousand dollars (1978 dollars) but in a giant corporation, you're built into a situation with staged promotions; you're in a context where you can't really grow and find out. Volunteer in politics or Hunger, or the consumer movement, or the energy movement, or ecology.

"The most important lesson is, money is not anything it's just a symbol.

"Howard Hughes was a man worth over two billion dollars but in the last ten years of his life he was the most miniscule man I've ever conceived of. The bottom line is if you're an enlightened, self-interested person you DO get involved in things like this; if you don't you're just plain dumb.

"The world is totally available to self-starter, and if you need to be surrounded by a cocoon they'll find a big multi-national corporation that will put you in their cocoon and you'll float along on their track and you'll never really develop. You'll find when you're 50, 60 or 70 if the world is still around, that you've never really done anything. You've just been a cog in a gigantic wheel that would have been there if you were or not. The only time when you get some enjoyment or worth will be when you go skiing or whatever you do and you won't enjoy your job or your lifestyle as you should.

"One thing you know is that you spend your life at a process working at the thing you choose, not the goal but the thing, and if you don't choose a process that is inherently rewarding and makes you grow, then you're an idiot, because supposedly if your goal is to be president of General Motors and you have to do horrible unconscionable things for thirty years to get there... Mankind has the unique ability to adapt to any situation within seventy-two hours. If you've ever been on vacation for a week, you feel like you've been there for your whole life. So even if you do reach your goal only for seventy-two hours will the orgasm last. At that point you're again at the norm and you've spent thirty years of your life to get that seventy-two hour orgasm. So you'd better goddamn well pick something that you deeply care about that gives you rewards as you go along.

"Pete Seeger once said, 'I'm not sure my participation in a benefit cause, march, or demonstration has been effective, but I can tell you one thing, being involved in these kinds of issues means that you're involved with the good people with the live hearts, live eyes, and live heads.'

Chapin concluded,

"I recommend strongly to anybody that they get involved with the good people on issues in which you can invest passion, and which will indeed enrich your life, because I guarantee you that the people in power, all around the world, in almost every political system in the world, are running out of ideas, out of space, running out of vision, and it's up to us to come up with a new vision.

"This is not surprising. All the way through human history this process has occurred. We are at a time when we need rebirth, or we will just be riding a dinosaur into disaster.

"Thank you very much", he said, and the interview was over.

photo of Harry Chapin by Steve Stout

Watch for the Next Issue of Circle! on September 7