As soon as you hear the folk rock melody, the lyrics instantly pop in your head, and you begin singing along with Harry Chapin’s soothing voice:
My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then
Like so many great, enduring songs, this one began as a simple poem. In this case, the poem was written by Chapin’s wife, Sandy. In an interview, Sandy explains that there were two inspirations for the song: her first husband’s poor relationship with his father, and a country music song she happened to hear one day on the radio. Sandy elaborates about her first husband, James, and his complicated relationship to his father, John Cashmore: “[John] was one of 11 children, and he never went past the fifth grade in school. He started an office furniture company and built a successful business. Then he went into politics and was Borough President of Brooklyn for 25 years… [John] had spoken to a senator to get [James] into law school… and arranged for him to be sworn into the service the day he was supposed to take the bar exams… [Ultimately, John] was trying to engineer the kind of career for his son that he couldn’t have himself because of his lack of education… These things made James feel like his life was a fix.” Over the years, their relationship became more distant, and although John and James were civil to one another, they no longer connected emotionally as father and son. It was only after her divorce from James, that Sandy understood the crux of the problem: “It struck me in hindsight, and I realized that you have to be in communication with your children from the time they’re two years old.”
The second inspiration occurred years later, after she was married to Harry. At that point they didn’t have any children. Early in his career, Sandy would write poems and help Harry write songs for a television show, “Make a Wish,” that he worked on. One day, a country song captured her interest: “It was about a man and a woman sitting at their kitchen table and looking out to the backyard. They had a swing set and a sandbox and bicycle in the corner. They were talking about how it all went by so fast and how they could have spent more time, and now the kids are gone. That song put me in the mood for writing a lyric.” The lyrics that Sandy wrote that day, about a child getting older, became the foundation for “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Although Harry initially dismissed the poem at the time, he remembered it a year later, after their son was born. Sandy explains: “He said, ‘Hey, this is great — I’m going to put some music to it. I’m assuming he was looking at things differently after Josh was born, but he didn’t really talk about it to me.”
Harry not only added the perfect melody to the poem, he reworked the lyrics and drew inspiration from children’s nursery rhymes, like “The Cat and the Fiddle.” And for Harry, who was a new father, the song was very personal — it was about him and his son. The song is remarkably sweet but profoundly sad, delivering a powerful and sobering lesson about raising children — equally relevant for fathers and mothers who have to balance family life and their careers; as Harry once remarked: “Frankly, this song scares me to death.” Certainly, on one level, the song underscores the paradox of the American dream: the parent who wants a home, a family, and all that goes with that (vacations, cars, medical bills, education, etc.) is pulled away from that family life by the demands of the workplace, where he or she must toil endlessly to be able to afford all those things. And as a family grows, and children grow older, the expense only increase. Caught in that vicious cycle, a parent who is spending so much time at work, and understands the value of spending time with family, can only caution his children: “Do as I say, not as I do.” On another level, the song shatters the myth of spending “quality time” with your children or the myth that “you can have it all.” Hence, the song has always been favored by pastors, counselors, teachers, and parents of every age.
For Sandy, the meaning of the song is about how and when we acquire wisdom: “The whole point of the story is that we learn our lessons in life by making mistakes, by trial and error, by experience. It would be great if we could learn about the future ahead of time, but we have to learn the hard way… We don’t have a child born and then have all this wisdom… It’s like the old saying — too old too soon, too wise too late.”
The song was included on Harry’s album “Verities and Balderdash” released in 1974 for Geffen Records. The president of the label, David Geffen, selected that song as the album’s lead single. Cat’s in the Cradle went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 by the end of the year and it was Chapin’s only number one hit song.
Although the world is dramatically different than it was in 1974, the dynamic played out in the song is as relevant today as it was back then. In today’s fast-paced, competitive, and highly consumer-oriented world, the pressures to succeed in one’s career and to provide for a family can easily create a ever-growing chasm between a parent and his or her family. The vital lesson of this song is this: it is only with age that we arrive at the wisdom that time spent with children — and not money — is the most precious commodity of all.
For further reading: harrychapin.com/circle/winter04/behind.htm