Box Sets

Record Reviews

December 17, 1999:

Harry Chapin

Story of a Life (Elektra/Rhino)

Growing up in the Seventies, it seemed impossible to escape the music of Harry Chapin. A New York City boy, his albums rang from college dorm rooms and car radios on a near-constant basis, and most people never seemed to tire of his socially aware stories and heavily orchestrated songs. Tunes like "Cat's in the Cradle" and "Taxi" were big hits, while albums such as Short Stories and Verities and Balderdash occupied the turntables of folk music fans everywhere. At the time, one could appreciate Chapin's song craft on the first few listens, but repetition was liable to cause irritation in some nonbelievers. When Chapin died in a tragic car accident on Long Island in 1981, his passing silenced what was to many a much-admired voice. Surprisingly, the 3-CD set, Story of a Life is the first attempt at collecting Chapin's work in a retrospective box. While he and his songs have not been forgotten, the music is certainly not as timely as it once was. It possesses an old-time feeling of Americana, similar to looking at a Norman Rockwell painting from the Fifties. His stories seem quaint and wordy, his love songs more than a bit hackneyed. Chapin may have been considered an important folksinger in his day, but those days obviously are long gone, and it's certainly curious that such a set appears at this late date. Story of a Life spans the years from 1966 to his death and contains his best known songs as well as some hard-to-find tracks. The Chapin Brothers' "Someone's Calling My Name" from 1966 is a sprite bit of folk-rock, while a live rendition of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas," was always a sure crowd-pleaser in concert. Some of the songs are memorable and strike a chord with timeless distinction. "Circle" is possibly Chapin's best song ("All my life's a circle, sun up and sundown") and a folk anthem. The ethereal "Remember When the Music" is a sly bit of nostalgia, that some claim was composed as a tribute to John Lennon, whose death affected Chapin greatly. Story of a Life does a fine job of summarizing Chapin's journey on earth, but in the end, it's really for those that know the story, a memento to praise someone who once touched many people and left a legacy of song.


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