Happy 75th, Harry Chapin: “W*O*L*D” (1973)

chapin short stories

(Above: There’s a lot going on on this album cover.)

Harry Chapin would have been 75 today. The singer-songwriter is probably best known to classic rock audiences (and classic rock DJs in need of bathroom breaks) for his epic “Taxi,” which tells of a cabdriver’s chance meeting with an ex-lover one evening.

To pop audiences, he’s probably best known for his epic “Cat’s In the Cradle,” which tells the tale of a father too busy to spend time with his son, and what happens when one day the son is too busy to spend time with his father.

For that was the magic of a Chapin song: it was a story more than a catchy tune. Chapin had a way of weaving narrative into a melody that was memorable, poignant, often sad, and thought–provoking. His death on a New York bridge in a car accident, possibly triggered by a heart attack, at the age of 38 in 1981 was a tremendous loss to our songwriting canon.

That leads me to the story of Chapin’s that I know best, and one that many radio types can relate to: in 1993, I was the morning DJ at WCFL-FM, a station in Morris, Illinois that had tried – best it could – to replicate the sound of 1960s/70s Chicago Top 40 powerhouse WCFL.  We had the jingles, we had the music – hell, we even had Chickenman.  Our personalities, while they would never admit to being anywhere as good as Larry Lujack or Ron Britain, were solid suburban jocks.  What we lacked were two things: a solid signal where people lived, and advertising revenue.  Both spelled an early demise for the station: in the summer of 1993, after just three years on the air (and merely six months after I had come to work there full-time), we were told that the station’s owners had defaulted on their loans and that the station was in receivership.  (I will never forget a question posed to the bank representative – “How can they not pay the mortgage for three years? I miss a car payment, and they call” – and the banker’s answer: “When you owe the bank money and you can’t pay, you have a problem.  When you owe the bank a LOT of money and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.”)

As the receivership dragged on, we had fewer and fewer resources to work with, there was less hope for a bright future, and, as a result, I started adding a wider variety of music to my show. We were already unrated in the Chicago Arbitron, so there was no way to possibly dip lower.  Chapin’s “W*O*L*D” found me at the right time.  I was about to lose my job, I had spun through a series of relationships that ended quickly, and I hadn’t truly hit the level of success in my career that I had expected would come by leaving college early. In short, I was the guy in the song. “That’s how this business goes,” indeed.

The song never left my memory.  Any time a move or opportunity presented itself, and a new city was to be home, I thought of the litany of towns Chapin sung of. If it was a move to a smaller setting – my last three were Chicago to Grand Rapids to a small little AM station operated by the college – the inevitable “worked my way down home again” comparison presented itself. On the one hand, I could relate to and feel sorry for the DJ in the record.  On the other hand, there was, for many years, part of me wondering if the “last big gig” he left was open and if I should apply.  I have enough distance now – it’s been five years (!) since I’ve worked full-time in the business – to listen to the record a little differently.  Maybe when it gets to be eight – if all goes well, I’ll be up for tenure by then – I’ll be writing my own version of the story to “tell you all what’s gone down.”

You can hear the long LP version of “W*O*L*D” by clicking here.

An additional thought on Harry Chapin: aside from the music, he was very passionate about the cause of hunger. He founded WhyHunger (originally called World Hunger Year) to try and combat the problem of people going hungry. At the holidays, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle, bustle, and pressure of celebrating, shopping, and scheduling time with family and friends. As such, it’s really easy to forget those in need.

It’s hard, on a blog that is worldwide (which surprises me every time someone outside of the midwestern US reads it), to give a full list of organizations trying to feed people in need.  Might I make a few suggestions?

-If you’re near a college campus, they more than likely have a food pantry. The pressure on students due to rising college costs is high, and a large percentage of them are food insecure. Now that my wife and I represent a two-campus household, we make sure to support both of them.

-Most communities have some sort of group working to get food to people who need it. Check with your church or local government (many cities have an information phone number for non-emergency use) who can help get you in touch with the right parties.

-Organizations like CARE have been helping to feed the needy for years. You may also be familiar with Feed the Children and No Kid Hungry.  (I make no endorsement of a particular organization and encourage you to research any group that you choose to support.



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