Snake Chapman

Owen ‘Snake’ Chapman (1919-2002)

Traditional southern style fiddler, Owen ‘Snake’ Chapman was born in 1919 near Canada, north-eastern Kentucky in the log cabin he would be raised in. His life followed a fairly typical pattern of many Kentucky mountain people of the 20th century. Owen’s log cabin upbringing was followed by working as a coal miner from his early teen years through middle age, when black lung forced his early retirement. Next, he worked briefly in the auto plants of Detroit before returning to his home place in Chapman’s Hollow in the 60’s.

Chapman’s immediate family musical heritage was learned from his father, George ‘Doc’ Chapman (born in 1850) of the antebellum generation. It wasn’t uncommon for the older fiddlers recorded in the 1920s and 30s to play music rooted in the antebellum era.

Though influenced by older musicians around Williamson initially (notably Ed Haley), it was radio contest fiddling of the 1930’s and 40’s that Owen tried to emulate, especially Arthur Smith. Chapman adopted Arthur Smith’s long-bow technique for a long time. He played popular “Hillbilly” music of his era with Clayton and Russell West as the Kentucky Redbirds, then with Molly O’Day (Laverne Williamson) and her brother Cecil for radio and square dances. In the 60’s Owen inevitably played bluegrass before circling back to his roots for the Old-time revival. He can be broadly categorized in the style south-easterners call a ‘hornpipe fiddler’. Which doesn’t always mean someone who plays mainly hornpipes (though a large number of Snake’s tunes are either hornpipes or ‘quasi-hornpipes’) it refers to a ‘notey’ approach that gives even reels, polkas and the simpler breakdowns a hornpipe feel.

Chapman’s fiddling exhibits key developments and progression of the Appalachian traditional fiddling of 20th century Kentucky, and from a less geeky perspective, really draws listeners into a deep, invigorating trance with his effortless mastery of southern Appalachian Old-time fiddle playing.

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