WFMU : Freedom is Freeform!
JoeMc on 10/01/2009 at 03:00PM
Most music fans carry around a mental short list of musicians who, in their minds, are woefully underappreciated not only by the general public but by other music fans. No matter what the genre--folk, metal, hip-hop, or whatever the latest permutation of electronic dance music is called--we can all think of a performer who in our estimation deserves wider name recognition and popularity. I'm no different, and there are plenty of people I can think of who deserve greater cultural regard (some names that spring to mind while I'm sitting here: Tony Hazzard, Tom Rapp, John Kongos, Roy Harper, Tim Hollier....). But today I'd like to single out one particular gentleman from my mental list and tell you why you should care about him.
That man's name is Michael Chapman.
Born and raised in Hunslet, a heavily industrial inner-city section of Leeds in the north of England, Michael Chapman started his professional life as an art teacher. He moonlighted as a guitarist, though, and it was a great time to be one in England, as people like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch were redefining the sound of acoustic folk music with their intricate fingerstyle playing. Chapman began to play the folk circuits in Cornwall and London in the late 60s. Perhaps it was his early environs, but Chapman seemed to have a natural facility for the blues, and his early sets leaned heavily on tunes like "See See Rider" and "Key to the Highway."
It wasn't long before Chapman was writing his own songs, though, and what songs they were. He seemed to have a world of living behind even his earliest efforts; it's a cliché to talk about how young singers sound like old singers, but Chapman's vocals had a grizzled, weary tone to them that perfectly suited his subject matter, which was reflective without being naval-gazing, and often dealt with the persistence of unhappy memories. His songs tended to focus on the aftermath of relationships gone sour, carefully sifting through regrets and recriminations to get to the truth behind the ways people construct and deconstruct their lives together.
One of these songs, the bar-setting "It Didn't Work Out," led off his first album, Rainmaker, released by Harvest in 1969. Rainmaker created the template for the rest of the albums that Chapman recorded for Harvest: mournful, lyrically acute songs mixed in with accomplished guitar instrumentals. The guitar instrumentals weren't filler, either; by this time, Chapman's fluid fingerstyle playing was just as accomplished as the playing of some of his better-known peers.
"Kodak Ghosts," the song featured in this post, originally appeared on Chapman's second album, Fully Qualified Survivor, from 1970. It's quintessential Chapman, and in this stripped-down version from his guest appearance on Hatch's show in 2005, you can hear how his skillful guitar playing propels the song's narrative about a guy sitting around after a failed relationship with only his dog for company (the dog is a nice Chapmanesque touch). He seems to be trying to convince himself that any effect the relationship had on him is over, even as he obsesses about his lover’s future partners and revisits old love haunts. The Kodak ghosts of the title are never mentioned, but you can imagine the old photos strewn on the guy's kitchen table, representations of a dead affair that continues to haunt his mind.
Before the song proper starts, check out that intro: Chapman jokes in his usual sardonic manner (live, he’s a very funny storyteller), and then he tosses off a few dazzling runs ornamented with harmonics that any other guitarist would kill for. For Chapman, it’s business as usual.
Chapman recorded four albums for Harvest, each one a gem and each one distinct from the other in its musical choices. In the mid-70s, he signed to Decca Records and moved in a rockier direction. Millstone Grit, the first of his Decca albums, signaled in its very title the way Chapman would go for much of the rest of the decade: tougher, harder, and louder. His electric period failed to set the world alight, however, and as the 80s and 90s went on, Chapman returned to a more folk and blues-based sound. He’s continued to make records at the rate of one every couple of years, and all of them have their merits; much like his contemporary Bert Jansch, who has continued to make good records while the world looks elsewhere, Michael Chapman has continued to be active artistically. His most recent release is called Time Past and Time Passing, released last year on Electric Ragtime Records.
You can hear more Michael Chapman right here on the FMA. In addition to the rest of his session from Hatch’s program, you can hear his appearance on Irene Trudel’s program from last year here. Good thing, too—most of his albums are hard to find, even from the Harvest period. If you can find copies, start with his first two albums, and then branch out from there. Maybe one of these days there will be a nice anthology to make it easier, but believe me, it's worth the effort.