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Harry Chapin’s Genius And 1960s Folk Era Wisdom Aren’t Just For Commies And Radicals

By guest author Ron Nutter, Ph.D.

Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.

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I watched a documentary on Harry Chapin recently. His song “Remember When the Music,” which he wrote the day after a friend of his, Allard Lowenstein, was assassinated, played a prominent role in the film. And as I sit here in my small basement office in my North Carolina cabin, with his song echoing in my head, I keep wondering if I should be hating myself.

Folk music was an anchor to our social lives when young. Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four. Oh there was Rock ‘n’ Roll, of course, but in the search for meaning and purpose in our lives, a focus for our caring and our concerns, our need to make a difference in the world for good and against hatred and bigotry, it was folk music that pointed the way.

I look back with great fondness at that time of my life. Despite those years being less than happy for me personally – growing up without a dad, fearful of angry eruptions from my two older brothers, a terrible time in school which led to one teacher not allowing me in her class saying, “I’m not going to have any trouble from your kind this year” – folk music helped usher me into an alternate reality of kindness and care.

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Brought us all together to stand inside the rain
And as we’d join our hands, we’d meet in the refrain,
For we had dreams to live, we had hopes to give.

The notion of a “youth culture” is relatively new, and folk music helped delineate the young of my day from an older generation who had co-opted their lives to a consumerist mass society of “organization men” that crammed them into bureaucratic spaces like so many breathing widgets. So we set ourselves apart from that. The folk music of the time helped us to do that.

Even Harry Chapin chimed in with his song “Flowers Are Red” in which a young boy during his first days in school wildly is painting flowers and grass of kaleidoscopic colors until admonished by the teacher: “There’s a time for everything young man, and a way it should be done. . . . Flowers are red young man, green leaves are green. 

There’s no need to see flowers any other way than the way they always have been seen.” But the little boy persists, painting wildly until he is put in a corner. Eventually he emerges, plaintively telling the teacher, “Flowers are red, green grass is green. . . .”

That’s not going to happen to us, was the refrain of youth culture organized and reified through the folk music to which we listened and sang. We’re not going to sell our freedom-loving souls for a buck, not to please anyone.

There was another organizing principle that brought youth culture together, the Vietnam war. Folk music played a role there as well, with anti-war songs dominating youth culture. Old men who had already been co-opted by the system were making decisions that sent many of us half a world away to get our asses blown to smithereens. And for what? It was the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Odetta who created a safe world with their music that resisted the clamoring for and endless cycles of war. Where, indeed, have all the flowers gone?

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Was the best of what we dreamed of for our children’s time
And as we sang we worked, for time was just a line,
It was a gift we saved, a gift the future gave.

Another organizing principle of youth in my day was the Civil Rights Movement. It was criminal what was happening to black men and women, boys and girls in the South. And the youth at the time went to work to make a difference. The Freedom Riders went south to challenge a racist system that denied Blacks basic rights of humane treatment and the right to vote. We were horrified at the reception they received from local police as conveyed by the Nightly News, from arrests to beatings to murders.

In the face of that terror, heroes like Martin Luther King, Bayard Ruskin, and John Lewis organized and led youth in non-violent ways to confront the social evil of racism and eventually win the day. Before that day was won, on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, King gave a speech during the 1963 “March on Washington” that to this day still resonates to those of us who heard it.

King concluded his “I Have a Dream” speech with the ringing proclamation: “[W]hen we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’ “

Dion is generally not thought of as a folk singer, but his song “Abraham, Martin and John” evokes the feelings of the time. After verses remarking on the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the song refrains, “Didn’t you love the things that they stood for? Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me? And we’ll be free one day soon, it’s going to be one day.”

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Was a rock that we could cling to so we’d not despair,
And as we sang we knew we’d hear an echo fill the air
We’d be smiling then, we would smile again.

Despair! Youth of America came to Chicago in the late summer of 1968 during the Democrat National Convention to make a difference. Some gathered in Chicago to keep alive the dream of a just society while others gathered in Chicago to kill a truncated political system. Some gathered in Chicago to spread the message of Peace while others gathered in Chicago to spread insurrection and defiance. Some gathered in Chicago because Robert Kennedy had said, “And now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there,” while others gathered in Chicago because all politicians, including the sainted Bobby, were full of it.

“The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching. The whole world is watching.” The crowd, crazed, marched the streets of Chicago while Mayor Daley flipped off Senator Rubicoff on a tumultuous convention floor. Outside, the youth of America were met with police nightsticks. Many heads were cracked. Much blood was spilt. Despair!

Would we hear an echo when we sang as Harry Chapin had promised? Would we smile again? Would we?

*  *  *

Oh all the times I’ve listened, and all the times I’ve heard
All the melodies I’m missing, and all the magic words,
And all those potent voices, and the choices we had then,
How I’d love to find we had that kind of choice again.

Through a serendipitous series of events, I found myself at Milligan College in East Tennessee in the Fall of 1969 as a 21-year-old freshman. It was not just my surroundings that had changed. All those notions I had grown up with, those feelings engendered by the folk singers of the time, were now quite wobbly. Was it real? Peace? Love? Equality? Justice? Or was it all just a shadow show, a media-induced dream of the gullible.

The ensuing years brought knowledge, hopefully not at the expense of idealism. But I made an important discovery along the way. While ideals are good, one needs to be careful about the actions one takes to embody an ideal with the best of intentions. 

Good intentions are not enough; one needs also to envision as clearly as possible the results of those actions. Being exposed to Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School economists sensitize me to the very real problem of unintended consequences to public policies meant to manifest ideals.

So, when I listen to Harry Chapin pleading for others to play an active role in community organizing to fight hunger and poverty and other social injustices, my soul soars while my mind stands athwart saying, “Hold it, think about that.” I almost feel like a traitor to the young man I used to be. There is still a part of me, though, that responds to Harry’s challenge, but only if it is done at a smaller level. A local level. I realize it’s the top-down grand policies imposed by government motivated by a mixed bag of vested interests that is the real danger. You see someone hungry – feed them. 

A government welfare program to end hunger by disincentivizing work and making citizens totally dependent on government with its destabilizing effects on families – I want none of it.

Milligan was the beginning of an educational odyssey that took me to several graduate schools, finally emerging with a Ph.D. What followed were years of teaching at the university level, from which I derived much personal satisfaction if not wealth. Working with young people was a joy, seeing them enshrouded with their own idealism and futuristic dreams of making a difference. There were times I was envious, but also tempered by wisdom as to the ways of the world. An education can do that. There is little I experienced as a youth, I have learned, that was not experienced by other youths in earlier times, from Sophocles on.

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Was a glow on the horizon of every newborn day
And as we sang, the sun came up to chase the dark away,
And life was good, for we knew we could.

My wife and I faced the darkest days of our lives in July 1990. Our first child, Zadok William Nutter, was born in Louisville, KY. It was a high-risk birth because we learned early on that Zadok had a diaphragmatic hernia, which meant there was a hole in his diaphragm that allowed organs from his abdomen to migrate into his thorax, thus keeping his lungs from developing normally. How that might manifest at birth was unknown. Some with the condition are born in dire straits while others are born relatively normal.

Apgar scores measure a newborn’s appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration on a 2-point scale. If a child gets an Apgar of 10, which is to say a 2 in each category, it is a healthy newborn. Zadok had an Apgar of 3. When Zadok was born there was a group of about 15 medical professionals in the room. After the Apgar was determined, Zadok was brandished to his mom by a nurse and within seconds everyone was gone. My wife and I were dumbstruck in the silence, knowing our child’s life hung in the balance. After a few moments her parents were brought in. 

We three stood around my wife’s bed. Then her dad said, “We must remember, that God lost His Son too.” At that moment, it was all I could do to keep from slugging him.

My wife’s dad was a good man. He was a minister who actually walked the walk in his ministry. He was a good, good man. On that day, though, he simply forgot the first rule of grief counseling: shut-up, just be in fellowship in their moment of grief.

That was a dark, dark time for us. I’m not sure we’ve ever really gotten over it. To this day I struggle with my emotions when thinking of Zadok. He only lived 12 days, hooked to a machine that oxygenated his blood externally, thus giving his lungs a chance to heal. It was obvious early on, though, that a lack of oxygen at the beginning left him blind and likely with other mental deficits. His death left us groping in tears. C.S. Lewis’s notion of a “severe mercy” comes to mind.

So, is there a song, as Harry Chapin sings of, that will chase the dark away? Yes, there have been dark days, but also bright life-affirming days. Another son was born, Chapin McAfee, who is a blessing to his parents. His mother and I have made it to retirement essentially in good health, though I’ve had a few hiccups along the way. But hey. it’s the living of a life. With trials and tribulations, and joy and music. A full life, with yet a ways to go. Part of the adventure of life is recalling who one was at an earlier time. Alas!

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Brought the night across the valley as the day went down
And as we’d hum the melody, we’d be safe inside the sound,
And so we’d sleep, we had dreams to keep.

My wife and I now enter this late stage of our lives, or as Harry metaphorically presents it, the night reaches across the valley as the day goes down. We actually live on a mountain overlooking a valley and see a literal night reach across that valley each day. Metaphorically, we strive to stave off that night that eventually will enwrap us all.

A retired physician, she fills her time with crossword and jigsaw puzzles as well as ambitious cross-stitch projects. A retired university professor, I fill my time reading, thinking, researching – and remembering.

Among my memories are that of Harry Chapin. I’d seen him perform live twice, and had tickets for a performance he was to give in Indianapolis when he tragically died in an automobile accident in the summer of 1981.

My wife of 39 years and I had just met that summer as actors with a repertory theater company working in northern Indiana. I invited her to join me in seeing Harry and bought the tickets. Thus she was going to see Harry Chapin for the first time. In the meantime, she’d heard me speak of him, of my admiration of him. We fell in love that summer and fall, and we were married in August of 1982.

We all change over the years. I know I have. I suppose I fell under the sway of the reality principle. Ideals vs. reality became a significant question in my mind. Ideals give direction and passion to live, but run the risk of succumbing to fantasies. Reality allows the rigor of evidence and precedent to guide one’s thinking, but at some personal level it feels, at times, like selling out.

I think of the musical Man of La Mancha and the song, “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” Of course it’s a dream, of course it’s not reality, of course it’s just a silly tilting after windmills, but oh what a dream it is. Isn’t it worth having such dreams, even if counter to reality? Who wouldn’t want to dream the impossible dream? What hard-hearted fool wouldn’t want to right the unrightable wrong? And what passionless drone wouldn’t recognize that “the world will be better for this. That one man, scorned and covered with scars, still strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach . . . the unreachable stars.”

And so I find myself in my basement office, having watched a documentary on Harry Chapin, “Remember When the Music” echoing in my head, and wondering if I should be hating myself. I know I’ve changed in some important ways.

My wife misses that idealistic young man who wooed her all those years ago. Tell the truth, there are times when I miss him, too. But not enough to deny what I know through hard thought and experience to be true. It’s why I will never fit in with today’s “woke culture.” As much as one can admire the idealistic goals of this perfect society envisioned by today’s woke youth, reality insists that such ignorant and ahistorical strivings are silly at best and laden with dangerously tragic consequences at worst. Forgive them, Lord, for they literately know not what they do.

*  *  *

And I feel that something’s coming, and it’s not just in the wind.
It’s more than just tomorrow, it’s more than where we’ve been,
It offers me a promise, it’s telling me “Begin”,
I know we’re needing something worth believing in.

Which brings us to hope. However confused, disillusioned, disappointed, aggrieved, enervated we may feel, there is always the possibility that something is coming that will clarify, that will lead to a deeper understanding. In these late years of my life I have taken to thinking such clarity is more likely to come in the quiet refrain of daily life.

I have taken to thinking that Voltaire’s Candide had it right: quit seeking a Panglossian best of all possible worlds and instead tend to your own garden. There, surrounded by the world’s cacophony, perhaps one might hear that still small voice that caught Elijah’s attention so long ago. The divine plan is not necessarily carried out by mighty works and grandiose plans, but rather by a flow of small meaningful moments of grace. As Zechariah reminds us, God’s divine activity still proceeds, only not in great big, Barnum & Bailey, big government fashion.

And be hopeful that indeed something is coming that’s not just in the wind. Something that offers a promise, something worth believing in.

*  *  *

Remember when the music
Came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire
And as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire,
For we believed in things, and so we’d sing.

There is also an ambivalence in contrasting that idealistic youth who once was, with the clear-thinking analytical truth-teller I believe I have become. When I really dig down deep there is a strong sense in which, near as I can tell, I really haven’t changed all that much – not in what is really important.

Recall again King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which I have either read or listened to practically every year since Dr. King first delivered it. I can say without fear of contradiction that I have not lost one iota of the idealism engendered in that speech. And it leads me to wonder if I really have changed all that much. Perhaps it is the world that has changed as much if not more than I have.

There is a quote from Thomas Sowell that seems apropos here: “If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.”

Perhaps the heart of that youthful idealist still beats strong, though wiser and far more skeptical of big, top-down governmental approaches to social problems of race and justice and poverty which are built on passing passions of the moment. Perhaps what has changed is I no longer have that youthful passion for immediate quick fixes for what clearly are recondite issues often impenetrable in their complexity.

That doesn’t mean give up. Rather, it means go small. Tend your garden. If your neighbor needs help tending theirs, help them. If a neighbor is hungry, feed them. If a neighbor is in pain be with them and let them know you can be leaned on. It is from such humble beginnings that communities are made. And community seems to be what we are most in need of these days, much like Harry Chapin said.

By Ronald Grant Nutter, Ph.D.

Ron Nutter is a retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.

Photo by Odd Bodkins at Flickr.