Mr. Tanner – a Harry Chapin vignette (a repeat performance)

The following post was written about five years ago. I was thinking about this song the other day. Please do give it a listen.

One of my favorite performers who passed away much too early is Harry Chapin. Some may remember his biggest hits like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Taxi.”  Each of these songs is exemplary of his work as his songs told short stories. I have written before about my favorite one called “A Better Place to Be” where he tells two stories, one being recounted by a midnight watchman to a rotund waitress with the second one when she responds to his sadness.

But, a close second is called “Mr. Tanner” about a man who would sing while he worked. The lyrics follow, but listen to the song at the link below:

Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he’d made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
His friends and neighbors praised the voice that poured out from his throat.
They said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.

Chorus: But 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.

His friends kept working on him to try music out full time.
A big debut and rave reviews, a great career to climb.
Finally they got to him, he would take the fling.
A concert agent in New York agreed to have him sing.
And there were plane tickets, phone calls, money spent to rent the hall.
It took most of his savings but he gladly used them all.Chorus

The evening came, he took the stage, his face set in a smile.
And in the half filled hall the critics sat watching on the aisle.
But the concert was a blur to him, spatters of applause.
He did not know how well he sang, he only heard the flaws.
But the critics were concise, it only took four lines.
But no one could accuse them of being over kind.

(spoken) Mr. Martin Tanner, Baritone, of Dayton, Ohio made his
Town Hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately
his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards.
His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it
consistently interesting.
(sung) Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.

He came home to Dayton and was questioned by his friends.
Then he smiled and just said nothing and he never sang again,
excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed.
He sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes.

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.
(And) he did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole. 

His songs are reflective and poignant. Often, they leave you with melancholy. “Mr. Tanner” is no different. Yet, he also balanced these with some fun songs like the one where a truck load of bananas crashed in the middle of a small town. When he performed, he told you about the songs and then sang his stories.

Please do listen to this song and catch a few others while you are at it. He made you feel at home as he regaled you.

28 thoughts on “Mr. Tanner – a Harry Chapin vignette (a repeat performance)

  1. Note to Readers: Another of his story telling songs is the true story of how he met his wife. She hired him to teach her how to play a love song called “I wanna learn a love song.” And, he did, but the song led to love of the teacher not the reason for her being taught.

  2. I enabled notifications so that I don’t miss your posts anymore. So sad about that critique. I’d feel just awful reading something like that. And I often get like that myself. I love being creative, but once someone says something negative about my work, I tend to lose my will to do anything more. It’s been that way with my writing and drawing for many years now. I don’t feel like I’m good enough and so I tend to keep much of what I do to myself. People that negatively critique us take the fun out of what we do. It’s a shame, and it’s why I have a hard time critiquing others. I don’t want to say anything that might make someone feel like giving up.

    • I’m like you (and like Mr Tanner, too). I enjoy attempting to write creatively but have a fear of not being good enough; it’s why I’ll always just be a wannabe writer, not a ‘real’ one.

      O.0… perhaps I shouldn’t say this, as it could be interpreted as criticism: I hope that you can imagine that I have my tongue firmly in my cheek when I say, “the challenge is to view critical remarks as an opportunity to learn.” 🙂

      • I hope you don’t mind, but I think I should quote you first before attempting any further critiques. I’ll have to try it out on my 12 yr old daughter since she’s homeschooled. She will likely give me the raised eyebrow and then laugh at me. But she’s always saying I’m too easy on her, so maybe she’ll accept the challenge. 😉

      • Michelle, just like we don’t have to be disagreeable to disagree, criticism need not be destructive. Too often, criticism can go too far. Keith

      • Keep on writing. See my note about criticism can be destructive and not all of it is helpful. With that said, you are right about gleaning input from such. Keith

  3. Thanks for the introduction to Mr Tanner. A sad tale!

    Just to prove that I did take your advice and listen to the song via the link you provided: the transcript you offer has an error (just the one), in the last chorus rendition:

    and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.

    Of course, I shouldn’t offer that at all, because it could be interpreted as criticism, and Julia Galef’s #1 rule about offering unsolicited criticism is a good one.

    • Many thanks Pendantry. I love this rendition as it has a lead in by his widow. It amazes me how his back-up singer can sing an entirely different song during the chorus and neither singer lose focus.

      • I could so feel what Mr. Tanner felt. The excitement and passion for singing and then locking it up inside… You were absolutely right that I might like it. Thank you, Keith!

  4. Thanks for this one, Keith! I know very little of Chapin’s work, had never heard this one, but I enjoyed it. When I can, I plan to listen to more of his, for I had no idea he had done so many or that they told such great stories! You’ve broadened my horizons!

  5. Pingback: Everything has its place | Wibble

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