Rant ‘N’ Roll: One-On-One With Folksinger Tom Chapin

Tom Chapin’s new CD, 70 (Sundance Music), is also his age. It may be his best work. Certainly, it’s his best in years. Heartfelt, warm, satisfying, musically stimulating and vocally friendly, his range of subjects remain personal, universal and political. Nothing new there. He was properly schooled in New York State by folk icon Pete Seeger [1919-2014]. He started The Chapin Brothers with Harry and Steve that ran for 12 years. Harry Chapin, after leaving the band and becoming a huge star, died on the Long Island Expressway in 1981 at the age of 38.

How did the death of your older brother, Harry Chapin, affect your career?

                I started singing “Cat’s In The Cradle.” He was such a forceful personality. When we were kids, we used to say, “Two’s company. Harry’s a crowd.” Part of what saved me is that two weeks before Harry died, I had my second child, who is now 33. You grieve terribly but know there’s lots to live for.

I understand your whole family was big on left-wing politics.

                My aunt Happy was very involved in left-wing politics. Her great friend was Bayard Rustin [1912-1987], the gay black activist who planned the 1963 March On Washington with Rev. Martin Luther King., Jr. [1929-1968].

You’ve been around a long time. To what do you owe your longevity? Is it in the genes?

                My dad was a jazz drummer and died at 90. One of my grandfathers was a visual artist, a painter, the other was a writer. In my family, it was always about finding something in the arts to spend your life in, rather than finding a 9-to-5 “career” and waiting to retire. As I say in one of my new songs, “Guitar Child,” “folks like me do not retire, we reload.” I’d been trying to write that song for a while just to give a shout-out to some of the people who inspired me as a guitar player.

You’ve had a simultaneous “second career” as a children’s artist. So did Woody Guthrie. Were you thinking of him when you went into that?

                Actually, not. It comes with the territory. As a singer who plays in folk venues, you play for everybody. As you allude to, there’s a great tradition there. Woody, Pete, Tom Paxton and Peter Paul & Mary all wrote and performed children’s music. For me, I had a TV show called Make A Wish that won an Emmy Award back in the 1970s. People at that time told me, “Tom, you have to do a kids’ record.” I was married but without kids at that point. I mean, my idea of a kid’s song back then was “Three Little Duckies” or something, stuff for really little kids.

Like Woody’s “ridin’ in the car car.”

                Yeah, or Raffi, but then I had my own kids and when they outgrew Raffi and all of their little kid records, at about six and eight, I remember thinking how they understood humor and they understood stories and I figured I could write some really great stuff for this age. [Someone starts talking to Tom.] I’m sorry. My 89-year-old aunt has Alzheimer’s. That was her. When I turned 70, my mom turned 95, and I asked her how it felt. She asked me how it felt to have a child at 70 and I told her 70 is the new 69. I feel 50.

Anyway, our family car music was always Beatles, Eagles and Bob Marley. I thought this age is great because you can write articulate songs fun for both grown-ups and kids. So that became the task. How does one write a song to be played in the car over and over again? So I wrote “Family Tree” and it won a bunch of awards. We needed a woman’s voice on it so I called Judy Collins. So my first “family” recording was in 1988 and I’ve since done 12 others. It’s a body of work that I’m really proud of. Other people are starting to sing some of these songs and a lot of them are sung in schools. One of the songs, “This Pretty Planet,” was used to wake up John Glenn as he was orbiting the earth in 1998 on the space shuttle.

Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Harry Chapin all backed up their words with action and you’re also quite the activist.

                It starts with the hunger issue. Harry was so articulate and really galvanized by the idea that this is a country that could feed itself 10 or 12 times over yet a quarter of our children go to bed hungry. That goes for old people as well. Harry started an organization called World Hunger Year, now called WHY Hunger. It’s in its 40th year of putting hungry people on the way to self-reliance. I’m the longest-running board member. Why? Harry said to me, “I’m starting this hunger initiative. You want to be on the board?” When I demurred, he said, “Hell, you’re on the board.” That was over 40 years ago and it’s since become one of my proudest accomplishments.

I’m a grandpa now. When you get older, you don’t really care what the corporate bottom line is, but you do really care about what the world is going to be like when your grandchildren grow up so I’m involved environmentally as well. Recently, I’ve also been active against standardized testing in schools and the cutting away of funds for student arts. I wrote “You Can’t Spell Smart Without Art” for that. I had to testify in the New York State Senate about funding for the arts in public schools. They wouldn’t let Pete Seeger sing when he testified in front of Congress about what they considered “anti-American activities” but they certainly let me sing up in Albany…and I did.