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

Music | December 7, 2019

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.”

Inspired By Ms. Chapin

Ms. and Mr. Chapin (vintagerock)

A popular phrase today goes “Happy Wife, Happy Life.” Well, for Harry Chapin he couldn’t have done much more for his beloved than turn his wife’s poem into one of the greatest songs ever scribed, except, perhaps, spend as much time with his kid as possible.

That’s right. Billboard’s number one song in December of ‘74, which also won a Grammy and was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, was based on a poem by Sandra Gaston, Harry Chapin’s wife. The deep poignancy of the song makes complete sense when you learn where her inspiration came from.

The Truth Shines Through

Not a song about actual cats in cradles (humanizingthevacuum)

Before Harry met Sandra, she was married to a man named James Cashmore. Her poem explored the sad truth of her first husband’s relationship with his father, John Cashmore. As she best described it:

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.

20/20 Hindsight

Bottom right corner is Harry Chapin and his son Joshua (blog.airliftproductions)

According to Ms. Chapin, the relationship between her first husband and his father deteriorated to the point where they didn’t treat each other with the emotion that comes from the father-son bond. They stayed civil but lacked the warmth and love that many father-son relationships enjoy. It wasn’t until years later when Sandra realized the crux of their 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.”

A Very Attentive Husband

Where would Chapin be without his wife's original poetry? (harrychapinfoodbank)

Another source of inspiration for Chapin’s wife was a country song about “a man and a woman sitting at their kitchen table and looking out to the backyard," she said. "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."

Naturally, as most husbands do, he mostly ignored her foundation-building song. That is, until Chapin himself had a son.

A Child Changes Everything

Perhaps the song helped make Harry a better dad. (pressreader)

Once Chapin experienced the power of having your own son, he suddenly changed his tune on Sandra’s poem. "'Hey, this is great -- I’m going to put some music to it,'" she recalled him saying. "I’m assuming he was looking at things differently after Josh was born, but he didn’t really talk about it to me.”

Chapin added his musical genius to his wife’s passionate words and mixed in some inspiration from nursery rhymes. Thanks to the dueling brilliance of Harry Chapin and his wife, the song works on multiple levels. 

It warns of the sad outcome that happens when a parent focuses too hard on providing the life they want for their kids and not sharing themselves and their love with their children. It also warns of the difficulty in balancing work and family life -- that having everything isn’t really possible. 

Final Thoughts From The Authors

The Chapin clan (vintagerock)

Sandra shares how she sees the message of the song, “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.”

Chapin himself was disturbed by his biggest hit. “Frankly, this song scares me to death,” he said.

Chapin died in a car accident in 1981, leaving behind one of the most beloved and poignant songs ever to top the pop charts.

Tags: Cats In The Cradle | Harry Chapin | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!