The Story of Harry Chapin's Biggest, Saddest Hit

Harry Chapin in 1979
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Jeremy Grayson/Radio Times/Getty Images

On Nov. 15, 1972, Harry and Sandra Chapin's son Joshua was born. By all accounts, he came into the world in the usual way. His birth was one of a few events that led his singer/songwriter dad to craft one of the most affecting folk-rock hits of the early '70s: "Cat's in the Cradle."

The heartrending ballad is sung from the perspective of a new dad who could never find enough time from the rat race to spend time with his kid. His son's spirit never wanes - but, by the end of the song, he grows up to be just like his old man, and in a bittersweet irony, can't find enough time to spend with his aged father.

Chapin, thankfully, did not cop to autobiography when creating "Cradle." The genesis of the idea came, in fact, from Sandra, who'd previously been married to James Cashmore, the son of John Cashmore, a Brooklyn politician who found it difficult to balance work with family. She set the idea to lines in a poem, and Harry reflected on the words when they welcomed their own son. "He said, ‘Hey, this is great; I'm going to put some music to it,'" Sandra later remembered. "I'm assuming he was looking at things differently after Josh was born, but he didn't really talk about it to me."

In 1975, "Cat's in the Cradle" topped the Billboard Hot 100. While Chapin sadly did not live to see his son grow up after dying in a car crash in 1981, he was remembered fondly by Joshua, who would carry out his father's other great legacy beyond songwriting: passionate philanthropy in support of causes like ending world hunger, arts education and environmental causes.

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