Tom Chapin was destined for a life in the arts. He was born to a family brimming with talent, from his grandfathers (one a painter, the other a literary critic); to his mother, a cloth artist; and most notably his father (influential jazz drummer Jim Chapin) and brother, the late folk legend Harry Chapin. But it was his own volition that commandeered this destiny toward a message of community, hope, and social awareness — attributes that make his family moniker “Papa Tom” all the more fitting.
Chapin’s music career, prolific and longstanding, has followed two distinct, but connected, paths. One, as a respected contemporary folk artist, which includes the early days performing alongside his siblings, Harry and Steve, as The Chapin Brothers in the late 1950s and 60s. They toured New York nightclubs, talk shows, and even the dorms of SUNY Plattsburgh, where Tom went to school. From there Chapin pursued, and continues to develop, a distinguished solo career spanning five decades, with three Grammy awards, songwriting credits for television and film, as well as a stint acting on Broadway.
The other path found Chapin as a pioneer of “family” music — singing and writing story-based songs intended for children and their parents. Songs like “Bye Bye Dodo” and “Happy Earth Day” offer messages with social or environmental undertones in a fun context, which Chapin describes as “informational, but not preachy.” In the 1970s, Chapin hosted a children’s television show on ABC, Make a Wish, during which he performed such music.
More recently, Chapin has taken to transforming a few of these songs into illustrated children’s books; The Library Book (based off of “The Library Song”) and The Backwards Birthday Party are available on Amazon, and Simon & Schuster is currently working on a book version of “This Pretty Planet” to be released in 2020.
Combined, his paths birthed 26 recorded albums that paint a picture of a songwriter who sees a world of possibility, and wants to share it with anyone who will listen. And if you catch him live, like for his birthday concert on March 14 at The Towne Crier in Beacon, Chapin weaves a wonderful setlist of these story songs, ballads, comedic and political songs, family music, sing-alongs, old-time folk classics, and a favorite song or two by his brother Harry.
“Right now, it seems like songs of hope are an important thing. The music is about human things,” says Chapin.
It’s a familiar sentiment that resounds throughout the folk-artist community, most notably with one of the Chapin brothers’ idols, Pete Seeger, whom they discovered when Tom was only 12.
“We heard The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, the live recording, and that changed our lives,” says Chapin. “Harry said ‘We can do that.’ So we got instruments and started to learn, and learned from Pete Seeger.”
But Seeger’s influence on the Chapins didn’t end with what they learned from his records. In fact, his penchant for musical activism rubbed off on Harry and Tom during their friendship with the Clearwater founder, whom they met for the first time in their late teens at a cousin’s funeral. Friends and family gathered at the Quaker-style memorial service, and who walks in but Pete Seeger and his wife, Toshi, whom the cousin’s widow had known from school.
“About halfway through the service, when there was a lull, Pete picked up his big 12-string guitar, strummed it in that deep, drop–D tuning we all know, and sang ‘To everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn,’” says Chapin. “I remember thinking, this is the perfect person and the perfect song for this moment, this audience, this occasion. And we are all blessed to be here and to be part of it. For me it is not only a cherished moment but a big lesson in the power of song.”
Throughout the years, Chapin has supported Clearwater and performed in the organization’s summer music festival, the Great Hudson River Revival. On March 1, Chapin is hosting Clearwater’s 5th Annual Spirit of the Hudson Gala at The Garrison.
“Who would have thunk it that I got to know Pete Seeger and became an acolyte and a friend. It’s been kind of a wonderful ride in that way,” says Chapin. “Clearwater’s been a wonderful rallying cry in terms of our life. It’s something I feel incredibly strong about.”
Harry Chapin established his own foundation, WhyHunger, in 1975, which has grown into a global nonprofit that supports grassroots efforts to change the systems that perpetuate hunger and poverty. Tom and his family are key supporters during the organization’s annual Hungerthon fundraiser, which includes special programming across SiriusXM and other New York radio stations, as well as the Run Against Hunger in Croton-on-Hudson, where the Clearwater Festival also takes place.
Like Seeger, Chapin is a fixture in the Hudson Valley.
“It’s home. I feel really committed to this place,” says Chapin.
He lives in Piermont, where his wife, Bonnie, owns a women’s clothing boutique, Abigail Rose & Lily Too. It’s named after their daughters, who help run the shop when they can, themselves being quite busy as mothers and musicians in their own band, The Chapin Sisters. (Chapin and his daughters will be hosting a “musical cruise” to Alaska in May with a lineup of concerts, Q&As, and other shipboard entertainment.)
Farmers’ markets and biking along the Hudson are two things that Chapin loves about living in the Hudson Valley. He also frequents Beacon, where his friends, Grammy-winning acoustic artist David Bernz and his son Jacob, own Main Street Music.
With a 27th album in the works, Chapin is spending time writing what makes him happy. His advice to any aspiring artist is: “Follow your bliss. Go toward what really moves you.” It’s what landed him where he is today.
Chapin reflected on a memory of when a reporter asked Seeger if he felt his music had made a difference in the world, to which Seeger responded: “I don’t know. But I do know I’ve met the good people. The people with live hearts, live eyes, and live minds.”