Snake Chapman

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from “The North American Traditions Series: Its Rationale,” by Mark Wilson (General Editor):

One of the most intriguing musicians in our series is Owen “Snake” Chapman, a fiddler in his late ‘seventies from Canada, Kentucky. Snake knows as many melodies as any fiddler I have ever met, ranging from very old tunes learned from his father to modern “bluegrass” fare. Growing up in an isolated mountain hollow, Owen developed an astonishingly accurate ear for the nuances of a fiddle tune and can diagnose very sharply the manner in which the playing of certain popular fiddle tunes have evolved over his own lifetime.

Among all of the melodies Snake plays, the most astonishing are the tunes he learned as a boy from his elderly father, “Doc” Chapman, who had been born in 1850 (“Doc”‘s own father, according to family tradition, split logs with Abraham Lincoln before the family resettled in Kentucky). Snake can still picture his father’s playing in his mind’s eye and reproduce it, pointing out its many special features.

To hear Owen play an melancholy old melody like “Rock Andy” gives one the eerie sense of having a little window open before one directly onto the nineteenth century.  And the lyrics that have been passed along with “Rock Andy” only increase ones sense of historical penetration:

 
“Ole Massa sol’ me, Speculator bought me, took me to Raleigh to learn how to rock candy.”

 

“Rocking Candy” was an old slave dance; in Snake’s family, it has become transmogrified to “Rock Andy.” Verses like this were reported in antebellum reports of slave “corn huskings” (see Roger Abrahams’ “Singing the Master” for contemporaneous reports of these activities).

Musically, “Rock Andy”–and almost all the other tunes that “Doc” Chapman played–seem sui generis to nineteenth century America: they represent musical forms that unlike anything familiar in either Scots-Irish tradition or contemporary Southern fiddling. Rather we seem in “Rock Andy” to witness the emergence of a new transitional strain in music, born on American soil through the cooperation of black and white musicians.

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