Tom Chapin's take-along songs are big hits with kids

October 24, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Tom Chapin has a rule of thumb for recognizing a great children's music cassette: It gets packed in the car for road trips. "The bottom line is when parents say, 'Yours are the tapes we take on long trips.' That means that everybody in that car will listen to it over and over again," he says.

By those standards, Mr. Chapin's four albums of original children's music are long-distance winners. Bubbling with musical puns, rounds and other traditional forms, odes to nature and witty tales of family high jinks, they appeal to authority figures as well as the 4- to 12-year-old set.

Today, adults and children have a chance to hear their traveling companion in person. This afternoon, Mr. Chapin performs at Notre Dame Prep School to benefit the adoption services unit of Catholic Charities.

Co-written with John Forster and Michael Mark, Mr. Chapin's songs have been praised for their ability to extol the social contract with no treacly sermonizing. His first three albums, "Family Tree," "Moonboat" and "Mother Earth," have earned kudos from the American Library Association, Parents' Choice Foundation (a board that reviews children's media products) and the New York Music Awards.

"Billy the Squid," released this year, is a melange of folk, well-known classical hooks, blues and jazz, with guest appearances by Rosanne Cash and Branford Marsalis. The title cut sings the praises of a heroic invertebrate. In "The Ghost of Bleak House," an ancient spook is put to shame by a straightforward little girl. "The Missing Parade" tells the story of a Fourth of July parade that goes joyously astray.

By phone from his country home in upstate New York, Mr. Chapin explains that he entered the world of children's music after attending one too many cloying kids' concerts with daughters Abigail and Lily. "The thrust here is to have a fun experience for everybody," he says of his own compositions. Like a great children's book, or classic Disney movie, "There's a strong, simple theme. It's fun and delightful and together, we're enjoying this."

Unlike traditional fairy tales, folk songs and contemporary children's literature which often acknowledge the grim side of lTC life, Mr. Chapin's music is unfailingly upbeat.

"I have to admit, I don't feel like my job is to talk about the darker side," he says. "Kids, especially nowadays, get a very dark and scary picture about the world."

Mr. Chapin's spree of lively family albums is preceded by an extensive career as an entertainer. The brother of the late Harry Chapin, he grew up in a musical household and frequently performed with his legendary sibling as well as with brother Steve. For five years in the early 1970s, Mr. Chapin was the host of the award-winning children's television show "Make A Wish." Nine years ago, he played a lead role on Broadway in "Pump Boys and Dinettes." In the late 1980s, he was host of the National Geographic Series, "Explorer."

As a board member of World Hunger Year, (founded in 1975 by his late brother), and a champion of environmental causes, Mr. Chapin, 47, lives the life he espouses in song.

His latest creative venture coincides with a booming children's music market where nearly every genre imaginable has has been retooled for young ears, and where the likes of Little Richard, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others, have recorded children's songs for charitable causes.

"I find it very funny. I've never been in the forefront of anything," Mr. Chapin says. Catering musically to children does not detract from their appreciation of all music, he adds. "I'm much more worried about television than kids' music . . . it's still small potatoes compared to how much TV kids watch. Even the worst of [kids' music] is nothing compared to TV."

His skeptical take on television notwithstanding, Mr. Chapin has contributed his own video to the children's canon: "This Pretty Planet: Tom Chapin Live in Concert," was released last week by Sony. The video, recorded in a small theater in upstate New York, includes a visit by a whale and pastoral ramblings through the Hudson Valley.

Tom Chapin in Concert

Where: Notre Dame Prep School, 415 Hampton Lane, Towson

When: 2 p.m.

Admission: $10 at the door

Phone: (410) 659-4050

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