Various Artists – Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done: Friends Play Michael Chapman

January 01, 1970

(Tompkins Square)


Not long ago, Michael Chapman was a lot of people’s favorite overlooked
folk singer, the gruff voiced, lyrically-fingered veteran of the 1970s folk
revival that never seemed to have gotten his due. Well received reissues of Fully Qualified Survivor and Rainmaker, as well as tours with younger
pickers like Jack Rose (now sadly gone), have righted the balance.  


Oh Michael, Look What You’ve Done goes one step further, gathering contemporaries, admirers and bill sharers to
reinterpret Chapman’s songs. It is a lovely tribute, one which allows the
beauty of the songs to shine through multiple lenses and illuminate various
facets of Chapman’s appeal. There is a floor-stomping, string-band-style romp
from Rose’s former band, the Black Twig Pickers, Takoma-style reinvocations of
the man’s guitar skills from William Tyler and Nick Jonah Davis, and a
heart-wrecked and luminous cover of “That Time of Night” from Lucinda Williams
(with Doug Pettibone evoking Chapman’s eerie, haunted guitar work). Chapman’s
own generation of folk revivalists kick in some of the album’s most gorgeous
moments, with Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span finding a shape-note spirituality in
Chapman’s song “The Prospector” and Bridget St. John quietly, understatedly
killing on “Rabbit Hills.”


Some of Chapman’s interpreters hew closely to the original versions –
see William Tyler’s jaunty pretty-much-identical-to-Chapman’s ramble through
“Naked Ladies and Electric Ragtime” – and others, Thurston Moore, for instance,
in “It Didn’t Work Out,” sound exactly, inescapably like themselves. A few,
like the always-welcome Meg Baird (can we just stipulate that Baird can be on
every tribute album from now on?) manage to split the difference, capturing Chapman’s shadowy, introspective melancholy,
but infusing it with her own warmth and sweetness. Her “No Song To Sing” is
among the compilation’s high points.


By accident, I happened to be listening to Oh Michael during the same few weeks as Rainmaker, and the covers album only underlined how good the songs
were, how distinctly they were shaped by Chapman’s personality, but how
open-ended and susceptible to
interpretation they could be. Oh Michael shows us how strong and deep the current of Chapman’s imagination runs, and how
it sets off eddies and rills and streamlets of inspiration in other artists
everywhere it goes.


DOWNLOAD: “No Song to Sing”
“Rabbit Hills” “The Prospector”  JENNIFER KELLY

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