Tom Chapin Celebrates “70”

WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for March 8, 2015

I have presented many guests on the show over the years, and with live radio (or even pre-recorded radio), you never know how the conversation and performance will go. However, whenever Tom Chapin comes on the show, I always know it will be a wonderful afternoon.

Tom joined me in the studio to share selections from his brand new CD 70. Tom turned 70 on Friday the 13th and the celebration took the form of a concert at the famed Towne Crier Café in Beacon, New York. Tom’s daughters, who appear on the CD and perform professionally as The Chapin Sisters, joined him onstage.

Tom Chapin

Tom Chapin

It is hard to believe that I first met Tom 30 years ago. His hair might be grayer, and mine has become much thinner, but Tom still has the same charm, warm smile and incredible talent that continues to impress over the years.

I’ve often felt that Tom does not get enough recognition for the songs he has written or collaborated on over the years. That may seem like an odd thing to say about an artist whose career spans five decades, released 24 albums, won three Grammy Awards and many other awards, and has appeared on concert stages and festivals across the nation. As an actor, he has appeared in films, television and stage – including a stint on Broadway.

Tom first came to national attention in 1971 as the host of the acclaimed children’s TV series “Make a Wish.” He spent five years as host, during which the series won several Emmy Awards and a prestigious Peabody Award.

Although he was working as an actor, music was always a factor in his life and career. He came from an artistic family, his grandfather was author/critic Kenneth Burke and his father was notable jazz drummer Jim Chapin. Artistic pursuits were encouraged by his family, and growing up during the sixties, Tom and his brothers could be found in Greenwich Village soaking in the folk music that was being heard and led the siblings to form their own group – the Chapin Brothers. The group would disband, but the interest in music remained. By the mid-70s, Tom was balancing both acting and musical careers and he released his first solo CD in 1976.

Tom’s brother Harry would find commercial and critical success in the 1970s when his songs “Taxi” and “Cat’s in the Cradle” made their way into the Top 40 charts. Unlike most artists of the day, Harry would use his fame and devoted fan base to create awareness of social issues, most notably the hunger problem in our country. Tom joined Harry onstage as well as becoming an advocate for charitable and environmental causes. Tom serves on the board of directors for WhyHunger, the organization that Harry founded in the 1970s as World Hunger Year. Since Harry’s passing, Tom has also kept his brother’s music and legacy alive, while also forging a legacy of his own.

Tom might be best known for his “family” music. In 1988 he released the album “Family Tree.” At the time, Tom’s daughters were ages eight and six, and he wanted to create music that was geared toward this age group – the post toddler, pre-teens and their families. Since “Family Tree” was released, Tom has followed up with 12 additional family albums and performing family concerts for thousands of families. These albums have won numerous awards, and the most recent release, The Incredible Flexible You, has received a 2013 Parentsʼ Choice Gold Award, a Family Choice Award, a Momʼs Choice Gold Award and a Creative Child CD of the Year Award.

Since I first met Tom in the mid-’80s, he has always been there for WFDU when we were running a fund drive. Tom performed at a number of benefit concerts for WFDU, donating his time and talent and helping WFDU raise much needed funds to help keep our unique programming on the air. His support has meant a great deal to me and the station, and we will always be grateful.

Yet, for all the wonderful work he has done, I still feel that Tom’s output for adults deserves even greater recognition. While I have become friends with many artists over the years, I do try to remain critical with their artistic output. When it comes to Tom, I find a body of work that reaches me on different emotional levels. Tom’s “adult” songs share a trait with his “family” songs – they are life affirming. They speak of social and environmental issues, relationships, friends and family and getting through life. Tom is a powerful storyteller who uses humor and a keen sense of the human condition in his work.

70 CD cover

“70” – a new CD from Tom Chapin

His new CD 70 should not be looked at as a culmination of his life’s work, but rather a snapshot of what Tom is experiencing as he reaches this milestone birthday. The new recording features mainly original songs and collaborations, including one “re-interpreted” piece that Tom began writing 30 years ago and finished with his good friend and band member Jon Cobert. There is also a lovely version of Tom singing Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” a song that won a Grammy Award for when he narrated a version for a children’s book based on the classic song. The CD ends with a moving version of a song closely associated with Pete Seeger, “Quite Early Morning,” and Tom is joined by his daughters on the recording.

Issues about our environment are prominent in the selections for 70, including a topical song about fracking. Tom also gives a tip of the hat to his friend and sometime collaborator Si Kahn with two songs “Ride Out Any Storm” and “Prayer for Bristol Bay.” Si Kahn, the activist/singer-songwriter, has been alerting the musical community about a potential ecological disaster in Bristol Bay, Alaska where a proposed open pit copper and gold mine that threatens wild salmon in the bay and local rivers.

Closer to home (Tom lives in Rockland County in New York state), Tom wrote a song called “The Riverkeeper” about Captain John Lipscomb and his boat, run by the environmental organization Riverkeeper. Like the organization Clearwater (which was co-founded by Pete Seeger), Riverkeeper is an environmental group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries. Founded in the 1980’s, the Riverkeeper now boasts 150 “keepers” around the globe, all members of the Waterkeeper Alliance. Here in Teaneck, New Jersey, the Hackensack Riverkeeper is doing its part to protect our local river, which I can see from the windows of WFDU-FM’s studios.

Tom also features some personal songs, but unlike the navel gazer variety, Tom’s songs speak of experiences we all share. I was moved by “Old Dogs and Old Friends” which tells the tail, I mean tale, of Holly and Otis, two dogs that the Chapins brought home from the pound and grew from puppies to old age in their home. Tom also sings “Myra Jean,” written on the night his granddaughter was born five years ago.

Throughout the CD, Tom is joined by good friends such as John Guth, Jon Cobert and Guy Davis who adds a nice touch of blues harmonica on “Put a Light in Your Window.”

While he was in our studio, Tom and I chatted a bit about Pete Seeger, whose presence is felt throughout this CD. Before singing “Quite Early Morning” with his daughters to close the CD, Tom gives us a re-recording of a song that first appeared on one of his family albums. Taking its name from the Native American word for the Hudson River, the song “Muhheakunnuk” was written in 1998 with John Forster, telling the story of the river that inspired Pete and many other artists.

During our interview, Tom noted that while he might be moving things forward a bit, he really “stands of the backs of giants” like Seeger and Guthrie who blazed trails in decades past. From his early days in the Village where he watched many artists including Reverend Gary Davis, to 2015 where he graces stages all across the continent, Tom Chapin is creating a diverse body of work while teaching and inspiring others. His new CD adds to his canon, which I hope will continue to grow in the years to come.

Here is an audio clip of Tom and I discussing children’s music
and the role the arts plays in our schools:

New and Noteworthy: In addition to Tom Chapin’s 70, I was impressed by Spuyten Duyvil The Social Music Hour Vol. 1 (self), Pharis & Jason Romero A Wanderer I’ll Stay (self), Anna & Elizabeth Anna & Elizabeth (Free Dirt)

(Tune in to TRADITIONS every Sunday from 2pm to 5pm Eastern Time over WFDU-FM 89.1 in the NYC/Northern New Jersey area, or on the web at  On-demand streams of shows, including this one, are archived for two weeks HERE. A Sing Out! Radio Partner.)

ARTIST “Tune / Song”
ALBUM  Label Website
Theme: HARVEY REID “Dirty Dish Rag”
Solo Guitar Sketchbook  Woodpecker Records –
SPUYTEN DUYVIL “Hot Time in the Old Town / Preaching on the Old Campground”
The Social Music Hour Vol.1  self –

Anna & Elizabeth  Free Dirt –
PHARIS & JASON ROMERO “Goodbye Old Paint”
A Wanderer I’ll Stay   Lula Records –
MIKE OBERST “Sail Away, Ladies”
Mike Oberst and His Five-String Banjo  self –
Devil in the Seat  Self –

MELISANDE “Je Fais La Difficile”
Les Metamorphoses Self –
THE FRETLESS “Lonesome Scene of Winter”
The Fretless self –

Sterling Road  self –
THE KENNEDYS “The Queen of Hollywood High”
West  self –
Trust  self –
Dragonflies  self –

Guest: Tom Chapin. Tom shared selections from his new CD “70” and performed “Guitar Child”, “Backwards Birthday Party”, “Wreckage” and “Muhheakunnuk” live in the studio

TOM CHAPIN “Put a Light in Your Window”
70  Sundance Music –
TOM CHAPIN “Smart Without Art”
70  Sundance Music –
TOM CHAPIN “The Riverkeeper”
70  Sundance Music –
70  Sundance Music –

PETE SEEGER “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You”
American Folk Anthology  Not Now Music –

Ain’t No Hurry  Red House Records –
Ken Whitely & the Beulah Band  Borealis Records –
MOORS & MCCUMBER “My Heart is Open”
Pandemonium  self –

Done Spoke My Mind  self –
Still on the Levee  Signature Sounds – ,
Tomorrow is My Turn  Nonesuch Records – ,

Looking Back: Our American Irish Souls  self –
TOM PAXTON “Ireland”
Redemption Road  self –
Fiddle*piano*bass  self –

ODETTA  “Glory, Glory”
Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues  Tradition Records – out of print

Ron Olesko
1000 River Road
Teaneck, NJ 07666
click here for Traditions Archive

About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.


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