The song “Cat’s in the Cradle” presents a picture of a devastating problem in our society: parents who are so preoccupied about work or other activities that they fail to give their children the appropriate amount of attention that they deserve. According to Biography.com, the song’s creator, Harry Chaplin, spent a short career as a documentary filmmaker before becoming a writer and singer of folksongs in 1971. His 1972 album Heads and Tales granted him universal fame. Cat’s in the Cradle is among Chaplin’s most famous singles and it topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was also his only No. 1 song. Chaplin was also a great advocate for ending hunger in the United States and around the world. He co-founded a charity in 1975 called World Hunger Year, which was later renamed WhyHunger.
A 1977 article entitled The Titanic Rises to the Surface about the music of Harry Chapin identifies Cat’s in the Cradle as a song about family politics, but I can see how could relate to politics in a broader sense as well. It was written in the 1970’s, a time when there was a major disconnect between the American people and it’s government. In the same way the father and son were distant from one another as a result of years of estrangement, so the American people were bitterly divided over the issue of the Vietnam War; one camp staunchly supported it, the other aggressively protested against it.
In somber voice set to guitar music, Chaplin briefly chronicles the saga of a workaholic father who doesn’t spend time with son, even as the son reaches out to him with little boy hopefulness:
“When ya comin’ home Dad?”
“I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then,
Ya know we’ll have a good time then.”
Even more heartbreaking than the son’s words is the fact that the father never fulfills that promise. Other attempts to connect with his father aren’t even answered with same level of response .He said, “Thanks for the ball Dad, come let’s play…I said, “Not today, I got a lot to do.” Earlier in his son’s life, the father would promise they would hang out together, with the honest belief that he would do so. But now the father recognizes that he is so wrapped up in his work that such a promise would be useless; he simply isn’t willing to pull himself away from work long enough to play a quick game of catch with his son. He is blinded to how much his son needs him.
The song shifts gears in verse three; the son is now in college. He has been exposed to new and exciting experiences, and is no longer the little boy who waited expectantly for his father to be there for him. He is now a young man who wants to go out into the world, not stay home and talk to his dad. The father’s choices have come back to haunt him. His failure to build a firm relationship with his son during his childhood has set an example for him; regardless of whether the son is consciously aware of what he’s doing, he’s rejecting his father in the same way his father rejected him; when his father asks to talk, the son asks if he can borrow the car keys. Over the next several years, the relationship doesn’t improve. The son has moved away, and though they talk on the phone, the son apparently visits his father very rarely. It looks like he has accomplished his childhood dream: he’s become just like his father.
There is a simile spoken by the son to his father: “I know I’m gonna be like you.” Why would the son want to be like his father, the man spends so little time with him? Because he admires his dad from afar. With him working so much, the son hasn’t gotten to know him personally, so his only insights into father’s character is how he sees him behave. And what the son may be seeing is a hard-working man dedicated to his job and who has probably achieved a great deal of success. So when the son says he wants to be like his father, he says wants to become a man who throws himself into his profession.
In the last two lines of the second stanza,the father says to his son, …”I don’t know when, we’ll get together then, son,/ Ya know we’ll have a good time then. The word then is epistrophe, because it comes at the end of two consecutive lines. The epistrophe is important because it signifies his father’s promise to his child that they will get together at some time in the indeterminate future. He can’t set specific date or time because his work schedule won’t allow it. The only consolation he can give him is a vague hope that they will spend time together.
The song also utilizes several nursery rhyme images: “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon,/ Little Boy Blue and The Man In The Moon.” The first image is a game played among children, while the other three come from nursery rhymes, which were likely an integral part of his son’s childhood. Each of these images is created by alliterative words, with two of the words in each image beginning with the same letter. For example, the word cat and the word cradle both begin with the letter C. Alliteration is a frequent device in nursery rhymes and other children’s stories because it creates rhythmic pieces that children can remember easily. The song length is less than two pages so it’s very compressed. This speaks to the songwriter’s ability to convey the points he wants others to hear without making the song too long.
Chapin, Harry. “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Verities and Balderdash. Atlantic Recording, 1974. Album