Harry Chapin on What Made America Famous

This may surprise you, but I prefer listening to speaking. Listening is much more relaxing. And, as the Chairman of the Florida Democratic Party often says, I never learn anything when my lips are moving.

(Just to be clear, he says that about himself, not about me. He didn't say, "I never learn anything when Grayson's lips are moving." At least as far as I know. But you get the idea.)

So even though my name is up top, I really don't feel an irresistible impulse to fill this page with my own insights and quips. In fact, I'm quite happy to take the day off. Which is what I'm going to do.

As we used to say in the House of Representatives, I'm going to yield to my esteemed colleague from Brooklyn, singer and songwriter Mr. Harry Chapin. For a song that he wrote 37 years ago, called "What Made America Famous." Here are the lyrics:

It was the town that made America famous.
The churches full and the kids all gone to hell.
Six traffic lights and seven cops and all the streets kept clean.
The supermarket and the drug store and the bars all doing well.

They were the folks that made America famous.
The local fire department stocked with shorthaired volunteers.
And on Saturday night while America boozes
The fire department showed dirty movies,
The lawyer and the grocer seeing their dreams
Come to life on the movie screens
While the plumber hopes that he won't be seen
As he tries to hide his fears and he wipes away his tears.
But something's burning somewhere. Does anybody care?

We were the kids that made America famous.
The kind of kids that long since drove our parents to despair.
We were lazy long hairs dropping out, lost, confused, and copping out.
Convinced our futures were in doubt and trying not to care.

We lived in the house that made America famous.
It was a rundown slum, the shame of all the decent folks in town.
We hippies and some welfare cases,
Crowded families of coal black faces,
Cramped inside some cracked old boards,
The best that we all could afford
But still too nice for the rich landlord
To tear it down and we could hear the sound
Of something burning somewhere. Is anybody there?

We all lived the life that made America famous.
Our cops would make a point to shadow us around our town.
And we love children put a swastika on the bright red firehouse door.
America, the beautiful, it makes a body proud.

And then came the night that made America famous.
Was it carelessness or someone's sick idea of a joke?
In the tinder box trap that we hippies lived in someone struck a spark.
At first I thought I was dreaming,
Then I saw the first flames gleaming
And heard the sound of children screaming.
Coming through the smoke. That's when the horror broke.
Something's burning somewhere. Does anybody care?

It was the fire that made America famous.
The sirens wailed and the firemen stumbled sleepy from their homes.
And the plumber yelled: "Come on let's go!"
But they saw what was burning and said: "Take it slow,
Let 'em sweat a little, they'll never know
And besides, we just cleaned the chrome."
Said the plumber: "Then I'm going alone."

He rolled on up in the fire truck
And raised the ladder to the ledge
Where me and my girl and a couple of kids
Were clinging like bats to the edge.
We staggered to salvation,
Collapsed on the street.
And I never thought that a fat man's face
Would ever look so sweet.

I shook his hand in the scene that made America famous
And a smile from the heart that made America great
You see we spent the rest of that night in the home of a man I'd never known before.
It's funny when you get that close it's kind of hard to hate.

I went to sleep with the hope that made America famous.
I had the kind of a dream that maybe they're still trying to teach in school.

Of the America that made America famous...and
Of the people who just might understand
That how together yes we can
Create a country better than
The one we have made of this land,
We have a choice to make each man
who dares to dream, reaching out his hand
A prophet or just a crazy God damned
Dreamer of a fool - yes, a crazy fool
There's something burning somewhere.
Does anybody care?
Is anybody there?

Here is Harry singing the song, solo and unplugged.

Harry Chapin. Musician, author, playwright, humanitarian. Congressional Gold Medal Winner. Died in 1981, at the age of 38, in a head-on collision with a truck. This is what it says on his tombstone, from a song he wrote:

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

Harry, we miss you. And we sure could use someone like you alive today.


Alan Grayson

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