Harry Chapin's 'Cat's In The Cradle:' Song Lyrics & History

By Kellar Ellsworth
Harry Chapin's biggest hit by a mile: Cat's In The Cradle (discogs)

In December 1974, Harry Chapin's "Cat's In The Cradle" was a Billboard #1 hit -- and it's fair to say, an unlikely one. This earnest folk-rock meditation on fatherhood strikes a chord with young and old alike. 

It's presented as a series of dialogues between a man and his son, and as the verses go by we see them age without ever quite connecting. When the son is young, the father can't find the time to raise him, being busy with work and "bills to pay." Despite the distance, the son clearly admirws the father, saying "I'm gonna be like you, dad." By the end of the song, the father is old and retired, and longs to spend time with his son -- who, in fact, has followed in his father's footsteps, and is too busy for his old man. In some ways, it's a sad piece about a failed relationship -- but it's also just the way things sometimes are in the world. Neither character is bad.

The chorus begins with "The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon / Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon," a catchy but mysterious couplet in a song that is otherwise very straightforward. The references to nursery rhymes suggest that the father wishes he could go back to the very beginning, when the son was an infant, and start over again.

Even Millennials love the catchy, heart-wrenching tune that begs for a sing-along. Chapin’s masterpiece is one of the special songs that changes over time. When you’re a kid, it’s hard not to think happy jovial thoughts as you sing “I’m gonna be like you dad. You know I’m gonna be like you.” But as you grow up and start listening to the words more closely, you realize the convivial notes obscure a much more melancholy meaning. Here’s the story behind “Cat’s In The Cradle.”