Cat’s in the Cradle was once described by the artist’s brother as the song that “…put more fathers ill at ease than any other song in history.”
Harry Chapin topped the charts with it in 1974, but it still gets playtime today, getting covered by artists like Johnny Cash, Guns and Roses, Celtic Thunder (see below), and Ugly Kid Joe. There’s even a collaborative version with rapper DMC and Canadian singer Sarah MacLachlan.
Chapin’s wife Sandra, who wrote the lyrics, said they were based on the relationship her first husband, James Cashmore, had with his father. But Harry said the song made him think of his relationship with his own son, Josh, and said it even put him ill at ease: “Frankly, this song scares me to death.”
And no wonder. This cautionary tale is about a father who is surprised at just how fast his son grew up. The song begins with this businessman sharing he has “planes to catch and bills to pay” and meanwhile his boy “learned to walk while I was away.” But his son, as sons do, still admired his dad, and so each verse of the song ends with the boy making a promise:
He’d say ‘I’m gonna be like you dad
You know I’m gonna be like you’
The years go by and soon the boy is ten. He wants to play catch but dad still has “a lot to do.” His son doesn’t complain – he goes off to play on his own, still promising to grow up just like his dad.
It’s some years when the song, and this promise, takes a haunting turn. The father has “long since retired” and when he calls up his son to ask if his dear old dad can come by for a visit, he finds out his son just doesn’t have time for him right now. Chapin finishes the song singing:
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me
It isn’t hard to see how this cautionary tale could be relevant to our churches, with our many hard working dads, busy during the day, and then heading out to the many school and church meetings at night. These obligations are important, but we must never forget our more immediate priority – the needs of our wife and our children.