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Harry Chapin's Legacy Revisited in Documentary and Docu-Concert

Long before cofounding World Hunger Year (now WHY Hunger) with Bill Ayres in 1975, singer/songwriter Harry Chapin was donating his time, treasure, and talent on behalf of hunger issues that plagued a country with an embarrassment of riches. His advocacy took the form of everything from fundraising and awareness raising performances as well as meeting and charming legislators who he implored to step in the make a difference. One young student remembers a more local appearance, one which took place at his Long Island high school in 1974.

“He came and played when I was a junior in high school,” said Rick Korn. “He played in our auditorium during our lunch and talked to us then about hunger and poverty.”

Little could Korn have imagined then that more than 40 years later he’d be directing a documentary about Chapin’s humanitarian efforts which have continued since the singer’s death in July 1981. Korn’s connection to WHY Hunger began when he arranged a donation for WHY’s annual Hungerthon.

“Fast forward to 1997, I was working with Carl Perkins at the time and had picked him up at the airport,” Korn recalled. “I was listening to the Hungerthon on the radio, and I asked Carl if he’d autograph some blue suede shoes to be auctioned off. After that I met Bill Ayres, and we just hit it off and became friends. Bill and I would work on the Hungerthon, and we’d bring in people like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. About four years ago, I was asking why no one had ever done a documentary about Harry, and Bill said ‘Why don’t you do one?’”

The film was scheduled for a premiere last spring, but like everything else was postponed due to COVID. Now available on all the usual streaming platforms, the documentary perfectly captures the winning charm that made Chapin (or as most people, even those who never met him, typically call him, Harry) such a popular performer and a celebrated force for change. WHY Hunger could easily have slipped off the rails following his tragic and unexpected death, but Ayres remained on until his recent retirement. The Chapin family also remained vigilant.

“It was rough for awhile after that,” said Jen Chapin, Harry’s daughter and herself an accomplished singer/songwriter who was only 10 when her dad died. “We had to change the concept from just fundraising. But Kenny Rogers made a huge impact, and in the last 10 years we’ve really hit our stride, becoming a professionally sustainable organization with a staff and budgeting. Things are going well now after those transitional years.”

Chapin’s reach was felt strongly 36 years ago this month when Bob Geldof brought Live Aid to the world, the biggest hunger event of its time and clearly a piece of the Harry Chapin legacy. Chapin’s family was there, given VIP access, and Chapin’s widow Sandy (who cowrote one of his most iconic classics, “Cat’s in the Cradle”) was honored. The family continues to be active on the board of directors for WHY Hunger and participated in the making of Korn’s film, Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something.

“My Uncle Jim was on the board and kind of bequeathed it to me when he died,” Jen said about Harry’s brother. “I’ve been very active on the executive board. I felt like I earned it intellectually by preparing and educating myself on the topic. Plus as a freelance musician, I had the time to do it.”

In addition to the availability of the documentary in homes across the country, Monday, July 19 will provide a live streaming event, available for $10. The docu-concert will feature Harry’s brother Tom, a successful musician for decades, Jen and her trio, as well as the Chapin Sisters, Harry’s nieces who have also followed the family dynasty in music. Members of Harry’s band are also set to perform. Although the performance marks the 40th anniversary of Chapin’s death, the tone is decidedly celebratory, with not only musical offerings but scenes deleted from the film which Korn said even family members haven’t seen.

While WHY Hunger focuses on more widespread issues of hunger and poverty, locally the Community Harvest Food Bank has been providing assistance to area families for many years. These last many months have provided a host of challenges from which they are slowly recovering.

“One of our biggest losses was volunteers,” said Carmen Cumberland, president and CEO of Community Harvest. “We rely heavily on our volunteers so that was a challenge to overcome, but fortunately the National Guard came in and helped us get our distribution back up again. We also had people stand in line usually to put food into baskets, but with quarantine and distancing, we had to change all of that. We switched to a drive-thru, but with one location it wasn’t always conducive to keeping the flow of traffic down because you don’t want to cause traffic tie-ups. So we contacted the superintendents of the schools which were closed and used those parking lots to do drive-thru so that we could put the food directly into the back of their cars.”

Food shortages were also problematic, but Community Harvest did what they could to collect staples while taking advantage of local farmers to keep the produce selection high. Stimulus checks took away some of the need, but as those funds dry up and people return to work gradually, Cumberland sees that the need will arise again. For those who wish to help, she suggested monetary donations if possible since their resources and purchases in bulk mean the money can be stretched beyond what the typical family can purchase. She also suggests checking on neighbors, seeing if they’re in need of assistance through transportation or delivery.

For fans of Harry Chapin, the documentary and livestreamed docu-concert provide a loving look at the performer and an inspiring glimpse into his activism. Korn said that people can expect a fun, uplifting event, one that will make us miss the magic that was Harry while giving a boost to his legacy through WHY Hunger.

To access the livestream event on Monday evening, visit this link:

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