The singular thing about Harry Chapin is not that he promoted causes in and through his musical performances but that he managed to do so in a way that endeared rather than alienated him from most listeners.
Perhaps that is a consequence of the fact that the cause about which he was most outspoken – world hunger – is viewed as non-partisan. But Chapin still talked about wealth and class disparities with the sort of rhetoric that would most likely receive pushback from some segments of the contemporary social and political landscape. He didn’t just argue that poverty was bad or painful, he also argued (at least in the double-album I grew up with) that the middle-class had to do more for the poor because the wealthy were greedy and selfish.
It is possible that the public response to Chapin – almost universally positive – can be ascribed to his having lived in a less polarized time. I do not think that is all of it, though. Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something, illustrates that he also had charisma and an authentic, compassionate personality that people responded to positively.
Nowhere is that more evident than when other musicians offer their remembrances of the folk singer. Billy Joel tells of how Chapin the headliner talked up his opening act when Joel was opening for him. His point was not that everyone should do this, it was that Chapin often went above and beyond what was required. Pat Benatar beams when she talks about Chapin wandering into a club where she was performing and inviting her to audition – even while forgetting his money and leaving her to pick up the tab! Nobody seemingly has a bad word to say about Chapin – not fellow musicians, not his family (who kicked him out of the band and forced him to go solo), not even the record producers.
Another endearing point about Chapin (and the documentary) is that whether performing or giving interviews, he is always smiling. He comes across as relentlessly upbeat, a polar opposite of the caricature of a burnt-out do-gooder or an angry prophet. Although he did not speak about religious convictions driving his causes, his dedication and demeanor have much to teach people of faith about how one can be a zealous advocate while expressing positive aspirations rather than only critical condemnations.
Even though I have been familiar with Chapin long enough to own his double-album of live performances on cassette tape, the film still managed to tell me a few things about him that I didn’t know: which songs are autobiographical, which performers he helped break into the business. It was a treat to get to see what some of his band and brothers looked like. Mostly, though, this is a celebration of the man and his life more than it is a critical inquiry or complete summary of it. As an angry, politically polarized year draws to a close, it sure is nice to be reminded that we have always had good people among us who are willing to share their hearts as well as their passions and their convictions.
Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something is currently screening digitally and at select theaters. It will be expanding to other cities in October and November, 2020.