Saturday, April 18, 2009

Art for Our Sake: From Harry Chapin to Susan Boyle

Mr.Tanner is a song written and performed by Harry Chapin (1942-1981), and can be heard on You Tube performed by Chapin himself, or interpreted by young singers. [See Story Links, below.] The song tells the story of a Mr. Tanner, who owned a cleaning business in the Midwest. Tanner loved to sing, and he sang beautifully. Encouraged by his friends, he travels to New York City for his first performance — spending his entire life savings, but happy to do it for this one big chance.

But after the performance, the critics were not satisfied, and their devastatingly harsh review destroyed Tanner's chance for a professional career. Tanner returned home, and “never sang again.”

But he did sing again &mdash and again. Tanner is a genuine artist, albeit an artist unrecognized. At the end of his working days, while sorting through the clothes, he sings.

Chapin tells us:

"Music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
He did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole."

Although Tanner failed in his career bid, his music transformed his life.

Chapin’s song is a fairy tale; but in real life, there are some working-class people who are getting their chance for more than the alloted 15 megabytes of fame.

Paul Potts was a cell-phone repair man, who sang opera on a British talent show, and then went on to a recording contract that sold millions of songs.

Susan Boyle recently sang on that same British TV show. In spite of her frumpy old-maid-like appearance, she electrified the judges and the audience with a moving rendition of a song from Les Miserables, “I Dreamed a Dream”. One YouTube video of her performance has been viewed more than 25 million times.

Susan will sing again on this show on May 23. The world will be watching.

It is wonderful to see talented people get the recognition they deserve.

tombstone of Harry Capin

At the same time we should keep in mind the lesson of Harry Chapin’s song. We should be creative — sing, dance, play music, draw, write poems, stories, novels and songs — not for the money and the fame. We should be artists for the pure joy it gives to us and to others; for the empathy and self-discipline it teaches us; and for the healing powers of these creative arts.

The British author Herbert Read has written extensively about the connection between art and non-violence. Creativity is not a luxury, it is a deep need in the human spirit. When human energies are not used for creativity and love &mdash or, as Thoreau tells us, when we "lead lives of quiet desperation" &mdash then the frustrated person may erupt by performing acts of of violence against himself or others. Shootings in schools and workplaces could be vastly reduced, and perhaps even eliminated, if creative lives were not the exception, but the norm.

Harry Chapin’s tombstone is inscribed with these words:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one’s man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
To this world.

Michael Pastore

Story Links

Harry Chapin sings Mr. Tanner

Mashup of Mr. Taylor

Paul Potts, Opera Singer, on Britains Got Talent

Susan Boyle, Singer, on Britains Got Talent

Susan Boyle, article in the New York Times