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A Work of Glowing Humility – Tom Chapin’s “70”

Tom Chapin

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Folk music, broadly defined, occupies a unique place in our culture, musical and otherwise. Even as its status and impact in contemporary society has ostensibly diminished, with its tenets and temperaments seen as perhaps irretrievably rooted in an earlier time, antiquated, down-home, and dusty, two aspects (at least) of what’s generally considered ‘folk music’ around the world ensure its continued – and vital – relevance: Its tradition of sincere, unmitigated appraisals of what ails us as a people – whether, again, that ‘us’ is in the US, Europe, Africa or beyond – has never been more needed; and the simple fact that all music, no matter how urban, no matter how modern, is traceable by some (admittedly, at times, convoluted) path back to some form of indigenous expression. The wildest free jazz grew out of bebop – even as it was a reaction against – which of course has its roots in blues and spirituals and ragtime; hip-hop, while in itself often considered a form of ‘the people’s music,’ emerged from the Bronx and Queens as, among other things, a localized version of Jamaican sound systems, and of course rock’n’roll itself, in all its forms, even that post-punk stuff I’m always yammering on about, derived from R&B and boogie and blues, which, well, see ‘jazz’ above. I suppose one might hold up techno etc as the exception but given its most frequent rhythmic pulse, you truly can’t get more tribal that that and in a very real crucial sense, ‘the tribe’ is what it’s all about here. All of which is to say that Woody Guthrie and his descendants, conceivably, exert as much provenance over hardcore punk as they do Daft Punk. So whatever your tastes, wherever lies your obsession, keep in mind should you be one to scoff at ‘folk,’ that it was all folk music at one time, it was how the common people told their stories and got their news, musicians traveling in their midst and my doesn’t that sound just like a stink broke band in a crowded dirty van spreading their own version of the gospel? All that laid down, let’s turn our attention to Tom Chapin’s new record 70, just released June 2nd on Sundance.

Still vibrant after all these years – the album, his 24th, is named for the man’s milestone birthday just reached on March 13th – the fourteen songs presented here range across the idiom’s horizons with an almost brazen energy. And though the playing on 70 is nothing less than stellar (Jon Cobert and Michael Mark, who’ve been riding this train for 27 years, plus assorted guests), the arrangements crisp, and the songwriting as accomplished as you’d expect (twelve of the fourteen were penned by Chapin and his frequent collaborators Si Kahn, John Forster, Cobert and Mark), it’s the singer’s voice that most impresses. Sounding with a warm authority, strongly tinged with an acknowledgement of his years, it’s doubtful we’ve ever heard him┬ámore present than we do here.

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Stepping into the fray with a striding confidence, opener “Wreckage,” Chapin’s banjo ringing clear and true, carries in its hold an honorable echo of disaster-based tracks from the past (“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” not the least), though here the lyrics limn a decidedly more modern twist as the song’s title refers not to some terrible calamity with a 72-point headline but instead the damage wreaked in our lives past and future and the grandmotherly advice to let it go, advice underlined by some riding violin wisdom courtesy Cenovia Cummins. From here we veer from the sage to the (slightly) more salacious, the thumpy, rambunctious and just-this-side-of randy “Put A Light in Your Window” sounding more like a man in his 30’s singing in the 1970’s than someone newly arrived at the septuagenarian’s table and that ain’t solely down to guest Guy Davis’s suggestive, freewheeling breeze of harmonica, neither, as Chapin’s vocal performance merits the words ‘zestful’ and ‘boisterous.’

Contrary to what those first two tracks (as well the lovely mid-album “Myra Jean,” an ode to an October-born granddaughter that’s as sweet as the mountain mist on an Appalachian Irish morning) may suggest, however, the singer has not abandoned his chosen genre’s primary remit, essaying the many challenges facing those pursuing a just life in this madly careening planet. Simply put, Tom Chapin’s conscience still bristles. From the raging anti-fracking “Down There” that, smartly, conveys its message as much via an engaging pop-folk structure as from its scathingly reasonable lyric (“just because it’s down there“) to “Riverkeeper” with an undercurrent that suggests “Roll On Columbia” to the seemingly Seeger-indebted “Ride Out Any Storm” that one can easily imagine the recently-passed master singing out with a beaming pride and a twinkling defiance that this time is addressed to the rapacious oil suckers of the north that would stop at nothing to see Alaska turned into an arctic Saudi Arabia, all folk cylinders are firing in abundance on 70.

Beyond the strictly environmental – there’s also the stark, hope-flecked indictment “Prayer for Bristol Bay” – comes a plea for sanity to return to education (the perky sass of “Smart Without Art” that attacks the inanity of reduced or flat-out eliminated arts programs in schools and does so with concise, motto-ready wit), an honorarium of sorts (the giddy acoustic workout “Guitar Child” wherein Chapin the player merges with the spirit of the instrument to become the titular inheritor of those that carved the path before him, Guthrie Seeger Leadbelly Reverend Gary Davis et al all repped in joyous homage), and a stripped down, rather devotional “City of New Orleans” that, because of its pure yearnings, Chapin recognizes never ages, the song professing its patriotism in the umber shades of an imperishable nostalgia, which, being outside the shadows of so-called exceptionalism, is the only place patriotism can honestly survive in living form.

For Tom Chapin – and this is as shiningly reflected on 70 as it’s ever been – the political clearly is the personal, the personal deeply emotional, a cycle heard most clarion here on the loving rendition of Pete Seeger’s “Quite Early Morning,”whereon the mellifluous, undiluted accompaniment of the Chapin Sisters (Tom’s daughters Lily and Abigail, who’ve inherited well) that will raise the righteous hairs on the back of your neck with its simple, Carter Family folk beauty, as if the history of the form and the future of the hope it holds in its striving heart have been distilled into a single moment, and that moment, as it’s always been, is now.

So, at seventy, Tom Chapin indeed lives, perhaps more forcibly than ever, and this new record is a work of glowing humility.