Backstage with Harry Chapin

[[ An odd thing: in the reports I get about folks reading this particular entry, many are “sent” here by doing a search for something like “Harry Chapin atheist.” Good grief, I thought; is that the main thing he’s known for? So, out of curiosity, I went to Wikipedia to read his bio, and there it is: “Harry Chapin was an atheist.” And a foot-noted citation led me to — oh no — my own blog.

So, if you have read this entry, I encourage you to read on…go to the next entry (The Good, They Die Young) and read what I perceive to be “the rest of the story.” — Jeff Kellam ]]


Harry Chapin was an American troubadour. His songs told of truck drivers, taxi drivers, dry cleaners, burned out deejays, and too-busy fathers. And a Texas sniper. Some of his songs were wistful; others angry. He founded World Hunger Year and wrote music for an off-Broadway show “The Cotton Patch Gospel,” based on the writings of Clarence Jordan of the Koinonia Community in Georgia. He was a hero of mine, as a singer and humanitarian, and he died way too young.

If Chapin’s music is heard on the radio these days, it is most probably his biggest hit “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In an interview at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, he told me that the words to the song were inspired by something his wife Sandy wrote and left on his desk when he had been away too much and too long. Touring and performing are the troubadour’s trade, but families are more important than fans, and Sandy’s broad hint that Harry was missing his son Josh grow up grew into a song that many dads could identify with. “When ya comin’ home, Dad?” “I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son.”

The first verse carried the admission, “He learned to walk while I was away.” And the last verse has the son, now grown, not having time to visit his old dad. “My boy was just like me.” Chapin told me that when he read his wife’s poem, it scared the hell out of him. And he recorded the song in order to scare the hell out of other fathers too busy to nurture their children. Naturally, I played the daylights out of that record on “Celebration Rock,” and on my other popular music shows, including the “Sunday Morning” program on WRVA. When the song was a hit, I think I was the only one who played it on WRVA, since the program director told me he wasn’t adding it to the station’s rotation. He thought the lyric would make fathers feel guilty, and “We play music for people to enjoy, not to feel bad about.” (I wondered at the time if that decision came about because PD’s were well-known for spending long hours at the station and Chapin’s cradle song hit them between the eyes.)

The interview with Harry Chapin took place backstage during the intermission of a Sunday night concert. He had arrived late at the theater, having missed his commercial flight and having hired a private plane to get to Richmond. He apologized to the audience, explaining that he had played the trumpet in church that morning as a favor to his former choir director. (Was it Mrs. McKittrick? Seems that’s what I remembered from the tape.) At some point in the interview, I asked him if, having been in church that morning, that meant he considered himself a religious person. “No, I don’t believe in God,” he replied.

He then went into a gentle rant about all the evil that had been done through the centuries by the Church in the name of their God. It was not the time for a debate, so we moved on to his concern about the world’s hungry children, and how his newly formed organization “World Hunger Year” would help bring people and communities together to fight world hunger. He did express gratitude that churches were among his strongest allies. But when I took the tape back to the studio for editing, I had quite a problem: what to do with his “I don’t believe in God” comment.

After all, the purpose of my program was to witness to the Christian faith, to share the Gospel, to interpret the teachings of Christ. The program was an outreach of the Presbyterian Church, and using contemporary popular music to help listeners grow in faith and love was what made the show. Curtis Mayfield had told me that the roots of his music grew out of his church experiences. Seals and Crofts deliberately held “firesides” after their concerts to promote their B’hai beliefs (and I gave them a platform on “Celebration Rock” to share that faith because of its interfaith connections). Noel Paul Stookey was glad to be interviewed for my show, not so much to promote his latest record, but because he wanted to share his faith journey and his evangelical witness. They fit the CR mold perfectly. (Though truth be told, it would have been “more perfect” if some well-known hit maker had admitted to being a Presbyterian!)

So, I faced this dilemma: what to do with Chapin’s admission that he was an agnostic, if not an atheist. It was only about 10 inches of magnetic tape, and a wax pencil would mark the beginning of that critical sentence and its end. A razor blade would slice across the edit block twice and splicing tape would join the cut tape together again. And no one would ever know he said it. I could even leave in the comments about all the harm that had been done by religious people through the ages. I’d play that and admit that I agreed with Chapin’s assessment, but offer some balance by reminding listeners that it was the compassion of Christ’s followers that would make World Hunger Year a success and redeem past sins and regretful acts.

But no. I had no need to censor Harry Chapin. Chapin was honest with me and I was honest with my listeners, and let the tape play back as recorded. If God could withstand the doubts of the Psalmist and the railing of prophets and the weak wills of disciples and misguided theology of certain saints and ordained sinners…well, Chapin’s statement of unfaith went over the air. And more than once, since it turned out to be such a good use of radio.

I did add this commentary, though. Some folks say they don’t believe in God, and act as if they do. Others say that they believe in God, but act as if they don’t. And it’s not up to me to separate the sheep from the goats.

Just before his tragic death on a New York highway, Chapin had completed the music and lyrics for an adaptation of a kind of country and western version of Godspell, the retelling of the Gospel accounts of the lfe and teachings of Jesus called “The Cotton Patch Gospel.” That off-Broadway production told the story of Jesus as if he had been born in rural Georgia. Chapin’s music was inspired. As was his life.

I have more to tell about Harry Chapin, including a phone interview I did soon after his death with one of Chapin’s best friends, a former priest. I never aired that interview. But I’ll tell you about it soon.


7 Responses to “Backstage with Harry Chapin”

  1. Mac Says:

    Harry Chapin’s musical adaptation is an interesting southern interpretation of the gospel and is usually conducted in a one-man presentation accompanied by a quartet of blue grass musicians.

    The stage version of the Cotton Patch Gospel was produced by Tom Key and Russell Treyz. This version, in which Key’s plays the leading role was released in 1988 and is available on video.

  2. Stan Kittrell Says:

    Harry Chapin was a great storyteller, wasn’t he. He had an outdoor concert at VCU once. We waited and waited and waited. Finally when he showed up, it turned out he’s been stopped for speeding and gotten arrested or something, I don’t remember exactly what. It turned out to be a great concert though. He was killed not long after that. Chapin was the anti-Don Mclean. You could actually understand the story of his songs.

  3. celebrationrock Says:

    An odd thing: in the reports I get about folks reading this particular entry, many are “sent” here by doing a search for something like “Harry Chapin atheist.” Good grief, I thought; Is that the main thing he’s known for? So, out of curiosity, I went to Wikipedia to read his bio, and there it is: “Harry Chapin was an atheist.” And a foot-noted citation led me to — oh no — my own blog.

    So, if you have read this far, I encourage you to read on…go to the next entry (The Good, They Die Young) and read what I perceive to be “the rest of the story.” — Jeff Kellam

  4. Tom Sims Says:

    I just found these reflections, Jeff. You are likely to see yourself tagged in a Facebook Post where I quote you. I’ve always loved and been inspired by Chapin’s music and heart. Thanks for writing this a few years ago.

  5. celebrationrock Says:

    Thanks (I guess) to the Wikipedia entry and its using this blog in a footnote, the Chapin entry above gets hits almost every day. It intrigues me to know that Chapin continues to have an influence on listeners so many years after his death. When a friend recently heard that I had interviewed the singer-storyteller, I offered him a CD of my Chapin radio show. I also found my original interview tape, and a recording of the telphone interview I did with the man Chapin called his “best friend,” Bill Ayers. Both went onto a CD, along with the Chapin song “Jubilation,” which was sung at Harry Chapin’s memorial service. That song is a highlight of “The Cotton Patch Gospel.” An Amazon search can lead to a DVD of that off-Broadway show Harry Chapin was working on at the time of his death.

  6. Gail Says:

    How very sad. I have loved his music since i was a teen. I had a chance to see him perform live- but past up on it to save $ for school… He was killed that year. I mourned his loss. I felt sad to find 5? Children left fatherless, but tonight was the first time I asked… Was he Christian? While he worked on the play- he heard the gospel- the rest is the work of the Spirit. Who knows where he was on his faith journey… God our Father wants all to be saved

    • celebrationrock Says:

      Gail, my understanding is that Chapin grew up in an Episcopal Church, but grew aware of the corruption of church powers through the centuries, and eventually left the church. He was also, however, very in touch with how people of faith were strong allies in his vision for alleviating global hunger. Certainly his participation in the “Cotton Patch Gospel” project showed that he knew and could communicate the depth of the Jesus story, and one of his closest friends (cited in my blog) was confident that Chapin’s core beliefs were in tune with the foundational tents of grace and love. (see the entry below)

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