Now, 11 children's albums and nine adult albums later, Chapin is well-known among elementary school-age kids, their families and teachers for his friendly songs that engage kids in topics from birthdays and homework to recycling and Earth Day.
Chapin will open Palo Alto's Twilight Concert Series on Saturday, July 17, with a concert at Mitchell Park at 6:30 p.m. It will feature both family music geared towards children ages 4 to 11 and more adult-oriented songs for older members of the family.
Chapin will perform some of his hits, such as "Family Tree" and "This Pretty Planet," as well as selections from his latest adult album, "Let the Bad Times Roll," and brand-new children's songs.
In one new song, "Locally Grown," Chapin makes the "green" food movement accessible to kids. He sings: "It seems paradoxic and carbon dioxic to force all our food to commute / Wasting gallons of fuel, which we know isn't cool, for people or planets or fruit."
Chapin began his musical career in the late 1950s as a member of The Chapin Brothers with brothers Harry and Steve, playing mainstream folk music.
"My first five albums were a young man writing grown-up songs, writing for women, writing about stuff that was intriguing to me," Chapin said in a phone interview. "As you get older you write about different things, not just love songs. You write about the world as you see it. You're always looking for resonance."
In 1988, Chapin was disappointed to find that his daughters, Abigail and Lily, then ages 8 and 6, felt largely left out of most music offerings.
"There was a sort of hole in what was available for kids and families," he said. "There was not a lot (of music) for articulate, verbal kids who are still interested in stories and still listening to their parents, about age 4 to 10. I realized that was the last time when parents were really making the choices about their kids' music."
Chapin's first children's album, released that year, was "Family Tree," featuring such kid-friendly tunes as "The Parade Came Marching" and "Uh Oh, Accident." Over the next 22 years, his family albums garnered five Grammy nominations for Best Musical Album for Children. Parents Magazine calls Chapin "the Pied Piper of children's music," and Billboard has described him as "the best family artist around."
Chapin said the key to writing songs for kids is to write clear lyrics about a topic that kids can easily relate to.
"Kids will not sit through an extended metaphor that bores them," he said. "You try to find something they're interested in, or ought to be interested in, and then find a way to keep piquing their interest by a story, a word game or jokes. It's a very particular kind of writing."
In addition to his recording career, Chapin frequently makes time for giving back. His concerts often benefit causes including hunger, the environment and humane societies. In January, Chapin joined fellow musicians Pete Seeger and Michael Mark in a Hope for Haiti relief concert in Ossining, N.Y. The event raised more than $19,000 for Haiti earthquake victims, Chapin said.
"People like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and the folk world — their music has always tried to do something more than just the music. It tries to do some good. It's part of what I do," he said.
But songwriting and creativity are Chapin's specialties. He said he enjoys creating music as a way of bringing people together, and stresses the importance of parents listening to his music alongside their children.
"The idea that you get together for an hour in the same room in the same place and everyone's listening to the same thing, and in my case they'll be singing along — it has this incredible power of community," he said. "I very clearly talk about this as a family event, as opposed to you bring your kid and sit in the back and talk. You sit with your kid. Adult songs are the conversation between me and you. But my kids' stuff is a family thing. It's a conversation between you and your 6-year-old."
Although there are many challenges inherent in writing music for the youngest members of the community, Chapin said the rewards are worth it.
"The bottom line is I love what I do," he said. "You're dealing with a short attention span and yet an incredible openness that kids bring, and if you can engage it, you can fly."
Judge Lucky, the City of Palo Alto's arts manager and the Palo Alto Children's Theater's director, said the Twilight Concert Series organizers were looking for a big-name artist to kick off the series.
"Tom Chapin appeals to a lot of people in the Bay Area," Lucky said. "He has appeal as a songwriter in the traditional folk style, and he uses acoustic instruments."
This year, the series, which runs through Aug. 21, will also present Afro-Cuban, jazz, rock and roll and Greek music, as well as a Battle of the Bands. "We wanted to appeal to the diverse population of Palo Alto," Lucky said. "It's a great community gathering event in the park, to be out in nature having a fun time in the summer."
What: Tom Chapin in concert, presented by the annual Palo Alto Twilight Concert Series
Where: Mitchell Park, 600 East Meadow Drive, Palo Alto
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 17. Twilight Series concerts will be held every Saturday at 6:30 p.m. from July 17 to Aug. 21, in various city locations.
Info: Go to http://cityofpaloalto.org/recreation or call 650-463-4930.