Saturday, 11 September 2021

Musical navigator extraordinary, Michael Chapman sails the music circuit seas no more.

Music has a great way of bringing together the elements - and none is stronger than its affinity with the sea. 

Way back in the 1960s when British Folk music was perceived to be so subversive that MI5 closely monitored the affairs of its leading proponents a young man, having first picked up a guitar to "impress the girls", stumbled skint and soaked into a remote folk club with an open door policy near the cliffs of Botallack. That tiny embryonic club in the Count House at Botallack became the home to Pipers run by Mike the Fish and the formidable, Brenda Wootton. Of all the troubadours who filled the old tin mine counting house's thick granite walls the best know to a wider audience would be Ralph McTell whose song Streets of London resonates perhaps even more today than it did back then.

Back to our rain-soaked singer guitarist and how a very different career with humble beginnings panned out. In the early days the clubs owner was more interested, rightly so in running a viable club than the inherent musical value of its players. John the Fish along with Brenda Wotton were the resident artists and the musical backbone of the club. Local and visiting guest players were always welcomed but in those days there was a house rule that they could play any song they liked other than Dylan's 'Blowin in the Wind' - because at that time everyone did and the owner was sick of hearing it.

When the broke, wet and weary Michael Chapman happened upon the club desperate to earn at least a hot meal (they served food in those days) he was made aware of the rule and, as a result, launched into a set of his own songs. Such was the audience reaction Michael Chapman was immediately offered a residency for the rest of the summer season. Legend has it that Brenda Wootton was so put out by the young upstart taking all the limelight that she largely ignored him and his presence at first. So began a long career and even longer association with touring in Cornwall, especially in West Penwith where he has returned on a regular basis until very recently. 

Unlike Ralph McTell, Chapman never enjoyed a song with the widespread success of Streets of London and consequently nor a wider audience. His early albums featured Mick Ronson of Bowie fame and Steeleye Span's Steve Kemp - other collaborations are too numerous to mention. Undoubtedly, his affinity with Cornwall led to imagery of the sea becoming a common feature if his lyrics. Local writer, poet, rock climber and fisherman Des Hannigan was there in those early days - in his case fishing proved a more powerful driving force as a means of earning a living than his attempts at guitaring. Des provides a more intimate look at life back then here.

Two of Michael Chapman's most iconic songs with saltwater connections are Fully Qualified Survivor and Rabbit Hills - not that any self-respecting fisherman use such a word so endowed with bad luck as rabbit at sea - Bush-Conger Hills or Underground Mutton Hills would not quite have the same ring tough.

Here, in tribute are both songs form his second album;

Full Qualified Surviver

Rabbit Hills

There's much more to hear and read about those heady days of live acoustic gigs and venues - with a few key words Google will provide enough to keep you reading and listening to hours of words and songs with much of their roots in the far west of Cornwall.

RIP Michael Chapman - 1941-2021