Barbershop Article from The New York Times
Group: alt.music.a-cappella Date: Tue, Aug 11, 1998,
4:30pm (CDT+1) From: BrianLynch@corenet.net |
(Brian Lynch) Barbershop story in New York Times ON THE WEB AT http://www.nytimes.com/yr/mo/day/news/arts/barbershop-quartets.html Registration (free) is required.
NEW YORK TIMES
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Five years ago at Christmas time, John Gonzalez, a munitions specialist with the Defense Department, took his teen-age son, Marco, for a haircut in their new hometown of Albuquerque, N.M. While they were waiting, a quartet of a cappella singers came in to entertain the customers with carols, wringing an irresistible sentiment from the familiar holiday music.
"As they were leaving, I grabbed the smallest guy in the quartet and said, 'Hey is that something my boy and I could do?"' Gonzalez recalled between classes at Harmony College, a weeklong intensive study program in "barbershopping," the art of old-fashioned four-part harmony singing. "And that was that."
For the Gonzalezes, that day in Albuquerque was, as barbershoppers say, the hook; they've been harmonizing ever since. And though they are unusual for coming upon barbershop singing in an actual barbershop, their story of hearing the music and being instantly smitten is typical, at least within the society of men to which they now belong. That would be the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America , which is 60 years old and, with more than 34,000 members in 809 chapters in this country and Canada, may well be the largest singing organization in the world. Its independently run sister, Sweet Adelines International, claims a female membership of 29,000.
The society, as members call it (trying to pronounce the acronym is officially discouraged), is a fraternal organization of "congenial men of good character who love harmony in music or have a desire to harmonize," as it is written in the group's code of ethics. Based in Kenosha, Wis., it has an annual budget of $5.5 million, which it uses to hold competitions, publish a magazine, run educational programs and support amateur singing groups. But more than that, it is a group of ardent, amateur hobbyists -- most do not read music -- true believers, devoted to a kind of gospel. "We believe," members are wont to say, "that you can't be unhappy when you're singing."
Indeed, barbershop singing is the proverbial way of life, said Darryl Flinn, a former insurance executive who is the society's executive director. "Singing is what we do, but you cannot ignore the fraternal and familial aspect of what we do," he said. "The music brings us together. I'll bet I know 10,000 barbershoppers in this country by their first names."
Each summer, the society sponsors Harmony College at Western Missouri State College here, and this year's program had some 600 participants of varying skill and experience, as young as 12-year-old Nicky Papageorge from Los Angeles and as old as 95-year-old Dean Snyder from Alexandria, Va. Snyder delivered the opening night address, strumming the ukulele that first got him interested in music in 1918 and telling his fellow harmonizers, "If there's a song in our hearts, we can never grow old."
In addition to attending daily classes in subjects like history of barbershop, voice analysis, vocal techniques, theory of harmony and arranging for barbershop voices, they sang in choruses and in quartets. They gathered in hallways to sing "polecat songs" -- the dozen officially designated classics (like "My Wild Irish Rose" and "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie") that all society members have memorized, like a secret handshake.
They engaged in "woodshedding," their term for improvisation. They practiced "swipes," embellishments at the ends of lines that push a song forward, connecting lines musically in the absence of instrumental accompaniment. They sang "tags," ends of songs that, with their suspended chords giving way to satisfying resolutions, give barbershoppers their most intense pleasure.
They ate meatball sandwiches and chipped beef on toast in the dining hall and gathered each night at 10 for mammoth bowls of ice cream. The sense of ritual was palpable, and as part of it, the more than 100 first-timers among them, like the Gonzalezes, had to walk the campus wearing red or blue helicopter beanies, at least until midweek, when they held a sing-off. The winning team got to discard the beanies.
"I've been singing seven years," said Stephen Ray, 35, a systems analyst for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit who was wearing a blue beanie. "I wish I could say it was 15 or 20, but when I went to high school, we all thought the guys in the choir were sissies."
Ray said he had gone to a performance by the local society chapter with a co-worker. "They were having so much fun onstage that, afterward, when they invited everyone to audition, I did, and I've been going ever since," he said. "I sing every day now. You get the tunes in your head, and you can't them out." He paused for a moment to sing the lead part on a tag: "We'll just be the same old friends."
"That's what it's all about," he said. "It's more than singing. We really have good fellowship." Barbershop singing is generally defined as unaccompanied four-part harmony with arrangements built around dominant seventh chords -- that is, with the top note of a major chord dropped a full step. (An F-major chord, for example is F-A-C-F; the dominant seventh is F-A-C-E flat.). Also known as a barbershop seventh, it produces a sweet, straining sound that tilts forward, propelling a song toward a resolution to the major chord needed by the ear. "Ringing a chord" is what barbershoppers live for. "When it's rolling the right way and you hit a certain chord, you just want to sit back and smile," said Marco Gonzalez, now 20. "It's like falling in love. You don't know why it happens. You just have to acknowledge it."
Unlike that of choral singing, the melody in barbershop singing is carried in the second voice, called the lead. The top voice, the tenor, generally sings at an interval of a third above the lead; the bass supplies the resonant bottom and the rhythmic foundation, and the third voice, the baritone, is the junk man, ranging above and below the lead, filling whatever hole the arrangement has left in the chord. By lore, baritones are flakes, the butt of barbershop humor.
"Are the red beanies ready yet?" asked Ev Nau, the society official who was M.C. for the midweek competition among the rookies. "Do they realize today's Wednesday? Or are they all baritones?" The musical root of barbershop singing is said to date to the 16th century in Europe, where composers first developed the dominant seventh chord and other harmonies. The best guess as to the origin of the music's association with barbershops is that barbers, who at that time also performed medical and dental functions and were often among the best educated citizens of a town, "were frequently skilled musicians," said David Wright, a society historian. "Patrons would sing while they waited." The term barber's music, meaning incidental or spontaneous singing, occurs in the 17th-century diaries of Samuel Pepys.
Quartet singing in four-part harmony was an American invention, sometime before 1850, and quartets became fixtures in minstrel shows, singing gospel and, increasingly, contemporary popular songs by the likes of Stephen Foster. Helped by Edison's invention of the phonograph, quartet singing flourished during the era of vaudeville. By 1910, "barbershop" had become associated with seventh-chord harmony. The early 1900s, just before the advent of Scott Joplin's ragtime and the more complicated, more difficult-to-harmonize songs of 20th-century composers like Irving Berlin, are generally thought of as barbershopping's golden age.
The society was founded in 1938, when Owen Cash, a lawyer, and Rupert Hall, a businessman, both from Tulsa, Okla., crossed paths in the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, Mo. They began singing together in the piano lounge, and shortly afterward organized a meeting of aspiring harmonizers back in Tulsa. By June 1 of that year, there were 63 members of SPEBSQSA, a name concocted by Cash as a swipe at the spate of governmental acronyms -- TVA, WPA -- that proliferated in the era of, well, FDR. By 1950, membership nationwide was more than 26,000. For the society today, the biggest problems are the graying membership -- although 42 attendees of Harmony College were under 24, the median age of the Society is about 55 -- and the struggle to diversify. Although the Gonzalezes are of Mexican and American Indian descent, the organization is overwhelmingly white, which officials acknowledge is a function of both reputation and repertory. The music at the core of barbershopping derives from the Jim Crow era, after all, and the society's original charter restricted membership to white men. The clause was rewritten in 1962, but the image is hard to shake, and society officials say they feel frustrated in their efforts to attract members of other ethnic groups.
"We've deviled ourselves with that very question for 10 years," said Flinn, the executive director. "We have created a minority outreach program, and we have to be careful because a lot of our music comes from the time of slavery and is just not appropriate. We'd like to get beyond the stigma and have a good racial mix."
There is some irony in this. Black quartets in the 19th century were among the first to feature barbershop-style harmonies, and the style has clear ties to many black musical idioms, from gospel to doo-wop.
"Obviously the music most black people know is not in this style," said Farris Collins, who is black, a barbershopper and a high school music teacher from Albuquerque who was a vocal techniques instructor at Harmony College. "The kids just aren't that excited about it. For many of them, it just isn't funky enough."
Indeed, funky it ain't. The society has only just begun to accept more rhythmically inventive music as part of the barbershop canon, by which it means swing-era songs like "Sentimental Journey." Until a few years ago, a quartet performing a song featuring syncopated rhythms in a competition would be penalized. A popular arrangement of "Hello, Mary Lou," the 1960s Rick Nelson song, is a relatively new innovation in the barbershop world.
"A lot of the songs are too schmaltzy for most people," said David Wright, who in addition to being an amateur historian, arranger and singer, makes his living as a mathematics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. But like a lot of singers here, he acknowledged that spiritually and even sensually the music delivers a thrill -- not to hear it so much as to make it.
"There's something about this music that is for the gratification of the singer," he said. Indeed, watching a roomful of men singing tags, ringing chords so that emotion hums through the room, one can't help sense in them a kind of ecstasy. "Let me tell you a true story," said Ron Black, a computer programmer from Fresno, Calif. In San Francisco a few years ago, he said, after a competition, a lead, a tenor and a baritone were walking down the street and were approached by a prostitute. "She said to a guy, 'Hey you want to have some fun?"' Black said. "And the guy actually said, 'Oh, do you sing bass?"'
David Hutson for The New York Times
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