A good song that will last and stand the test of time is always a song that people can relate to and those songs are usually about relationships and ‘love’ in general. Cat’s In The Cradle is no exception albeit with a twist.
This is one of those songs that can really only mean more once you’ve had your own children. I first heard this song in the early 80s and as much as I loved it, it really hit home when my own son Harry was born in 2001 and having been a workaholic all my life and I was really determined that the essence of this song was not going to happen to me and I think I’ve succeeded.
The song was not strictly written by the song’s performer, Harry Chapin, but actually by his wife Sandy. Sandy explains why, “Cat’s In The Cradle’ was a combination of a couple of things. Whenever I was on a long drive I would listen to Country music, because words would keep me awake more than just music. And I heard a song… I can remember the story, but I don’t remember who sang it or what the title was, but an old couple were sitting at their breakfast table and looking out the window, and they saw the rusted swing and the sandbox, and they were reminiscing about the good old days when all the children were around and then the grandchildren, and how it passed, and now it’s all gone. The other part of the idea – this is always a problem, because Harry introduced the song at all his concerts and said, ‘This is a song my wife wrote to zap me because I wasn’t home when our son Josh was born.’ I was always kind of amused by that because of the fact that we learn life’s lessons too late. We don’t learn lessons before the fact. We don’t have a child born and then have all this wisdom. So I always thought it was interesting the way he told the story. But I learned the story because my (first) husband was going to New York to be a lawyer, and I had a teaching job in New York. While we were apartment hunting, we were living with his parents in Brooklyn. His father was the borough president of Brooklyn at the time, which I think was a much more important job than it is today. But every day when he got home from work, he would start talking to his son about, ‘It’d be great if you’d go down to the club on Tuesday night, I’d like to introduce you to some of the people I know,’ and so forth. And he started trying to engineer a career for him which leads to politics. 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. So this is the way the evenings went. The conversation was going through me. So I realised what had happened. You know, relationships and characters and personalities and all those things are formed by two, so I realised 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.” The real heart-wrencher is that the son just accepts that his dad is too busy.
Harry never had that problem in his own childhood. His father, Jim, was a jazz drummer who had played with Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey. This led Harry to learn trumpet and sing in a local boys choir. Harry’s brothers, Stephen and Tom, were also musical and had formed their own folk group. It took the birth of his son for Harry to decide to turn the poem into a song. Sandy continued, “Harry and I would exchange writing of all kinds. We were always working on each other’s writing. Some of my writing at a certain period were 20-page papers for a doctoral program at Columbia. So it wasn’t always that poetic. But we both looked at each other’s stuff. And then one time he came home and he said, ‘What have you been doing?’ I showed him ‘Cat’s In The Cradle,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ You know, sometimes he’d pick up something and put music to it. And that didn’t really grab him at all. And then after Josh was born, it did. He picked it up and he wrote music to it.”
The song includes many references to childhood things like Cat’s Cradle, a hand game played with string. Silver spoons, which are ornamental spoons, usually given as gifts to babies and Little Boy Blue is an old nursery rhyme. On July 16 1981, Harry was on his way to a business meeting in Manhattan, New York and whilst driving along the Long Island Freeway, he changed lanes to make an exit when a tractor trailer hit him from behind and crushed the back of his car. This, in turn caused sparks which ignited the fuel tank. The tractor driver pulled Harry from his car but upon arrival at the local hospital 38 minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
Sandy Chapin still runs the Harry Chapin Foundation, which does what it can to continue supporting the causes Harry championed when he was alive. She now has six grandchildren and naturally tries to spend as much time with them as she can.
Unbelievably this song never made the UK chart. However, in 1993 rock group Ugly Kid Joe took their cover version into the top ten. They obviously wanted to make their version appealing to felines everywhere as they’d missed out the apostrophe in the Cat’s! In 2001 another cover by Jason Downs featuring Milk stalled at number 65.
In the UK, Harry is still classed as a one-hit wonder when, in 1974, his song W.O.L.D, a tale of a morning DJ, just scraped into the top 40. One fan who championed that single was Noel Edmonds, who at the time was the Radio One breakfast show DJ. At the time of Harry’s death, Noel was doing a weekend mid-morning show on Radio One and began playing Harry’s songs quite regularly on his show in the hope that his record company would re-released his material, but that never happened.
Harry had been a tireless performer who managed to schedule around 200 concerts year the majority of which were for political and social causes. He also founded the World Hunger Fund which has since raised over eight million dollars. He had also performed at many concerts on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. His manager, Ken Kragen set up the Harry Chapin Memorial Fund, to continue his humanitarian efforts. This was noticed by Harry Belfonte in 1985 who was inspired to instigated the USA For Africa – We Are The World project.