Barbershop Quartets – gentlemen who know how to carry a tune and entertain a crowdPerfect HarmonyBarbershop Singing goes beyond handlebar moustaches in the quest to ‘ring the chord’
By Simonette Lashat
Having wowed himself and his own barbershop quartet with a particularly funky rendition of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a young baritone laughed out loud as he ran offstage last year at Jacksonville’s Times-Union Performing Arts Center. He was competing in a hard-fought songfest at the regional Barbershop Harmony Society Competition.
“This isn’t your father’s ‘barbershopping’ anymore!” he yelped. The stomping feet and bravos from the audience signaled wild agreement. Barbershop singing was hitting the mainstream.
“American Idol,” whooped the young baritone, “look out!”
The regional Barbershop Harmony Society Competition, to be held again this year in October in Jacksonville, draws hundreds of competitors and fills the auditorium for the entire weekend. Tallahassee’s smaller barbershop show in June is just as popular and features both Tallahassee’s Capital Chordsmen chorus and individual quartets.
Throughout the year, scores of barbershop choruses, quartets and their camp followers will travel coast to coast, packing hotels and auditoriums. They also offer workshops, coaching and the opportunity to extemporaneously burst into barbershop’s unique sound.
And they don’t always use their “indoor voices.” Not confined to the theater, in the cities that host barbershop conventions, ringing chords and harmonies will waft through hotel lobbies, out of men’s rooms, and up and down the streets at all hours.
“It’s so cool,” exclaimed a beaming tenor. “We just can’t stop singing!”
Most of the locals enjoy the a cappella outbursts, but a few say they begin to yearn for “elevator music” after a full weekend of barbershop. Last year at a Jacksonville restaurant, a waiter confided that “there were three quartets harmonizing at three different tables – until they all stood up and blended themselves into a giant version of ‘Heart of My Heart.’ That left the diners clapping and asking for more – and forgetting about tipping the waiters!”
But the waiter is in the minority. Most barbershop fans see the art form as fun, vibrant and – while connected to the past – ready to morph slightly to be relevant to the present.
Sweeping away the Norman Rockwell stereotype of barbershop quartets may be the goal of some younger singers, but for many, it is this very tradition that binds them.
“The mental picture of handlebar moustaches, striped vests and straw hats isn’t totally accurate for barbershop quartets anymore,” said Steve Jacobsen, president of the Tallahassee Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society. “But even though our styles have changed, it’s the harmony and the chords that keep us coming back. That part of our musical lineage is very clear.”
But barbershop’s roots have been controversial. In the 1930s, an eminent musicologist, Percy Skoals, misinterpreted an Elizabethan reference in the Oxford English Dictionary regarding “barber’s music.” He jumped to the conclusion that this was an early reference to harmony-singing quartets that must have migrated to the American colonies.
Further research concluded that the lute players who warbled a few tunes while getting haircuts were not the source of what became close-harmonied foursomes in the New World. Rather, the black Americans of the late 19th century were.
Gage Averill, chairman of the Music Department at New York University, writes in his book “Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony” that “barbering was a kind of low-status job. In some areas it was held by gypsies and European immigrants, in other areas by African-Americans.”
The barbershop became a kind of community center for black men. “A lot of harmony was created in these shops,” Averill writes.
Other scholars track the African-American musical techniques of “call and response;” a rhythmic beat through “vocal pulses” and “metric propellants;” and the use of the so-called “blue note” in the sounds of modern barbershop.
Jacobsen said that it wasn’t long before four-part harmonies caught on throughout the early part of the 20th century.
“While African-Americans may have been still singing in actual barbershops, American minstrel acts and then vaudeville picked up on the sound,” he said. “It seems the public couldn’t get enough of the charm and ringing notes these quartets brought to the stage. This image is still stuck in our musical cultural history.”
But even as barbershopping slipped from its early black American roots into the province of pure Americana, it tended to become stereotyped and “maybe a little petrified,” said Brad Hemmel, 40, a tenor from New Brunswick, Canada. He, like the eager baritone from Jacksonville, calls themselves “addicted” to the search for the traditional “perfect ringing chord.” But they also love the new directions barbershop has taken.
A typical “act” can range from the slightly formal to the outrageous, and everything in between. With playful names like Treble Makers, Crow Matix and the Jurassic Larks, each quartet begins the same way – blowing the note. Using a tiny pitch pipe, each of the singers – a tenor to sing the high harmonies, a bass to sing the low notes, a lead to carry the melody, and a baritone to harmonize either above or below the others – purses his lips and listens carefully as the note is struck. When they are satisfied that their voices are in a perfect blend, the men, who sometimes refer to themselves as “sound junkies,” transform into entertainers who can mug like silent movie stars, tell jokes that would make a third-grader proud, or communicate a musical sincerity that literally makes an audience weep.
“Sometimes it feels like Las Vegas,” Hemmel said. “But sometimes we just go straight to the heart.”
The vehicle used by barbershoppers to touch something profound in both the listeners and the singers themselves – the sound that has been described as “mysterious,” “addictive,” “sensual,” even “religious” – is a sound known as the “ringing chord,” the “blue note” or the “barbershop seventh.” It is so powerful that walking past a quartet at the instant it “rings the chord” feels like a physical slug.
“To be in the middle of this aural phenomenon is amazing,” Jacobsen said.
Putting aside sophisticated acoustical theory and physics, Jacobsen said that the creation of the ringing chord results from the “precise synchronization of the sound waves of four voices simultaneously creating a ‘perception’ of a fifth voice even as the other voices meld together in a unified sound.”
Rick DeZego, 26, a member of the Tallahassee quartet Fourtune, said the first time he heard it, “I absolutely had goose-flesh.”
DeZego isn’t alone in loving the components of barbershop: the search for beautiful sound, the fun of being an onstage “ham,” and the camaraderie of like-minded men. In Tallahassee, there are 40 singers who practice Thursday nights as part of the Tallahassee Capital Chordsmen. There are an additional four or five quartets who break out to individually rehearse, compete and perform all over the region.
“My favorite performance is Valentine’s Day,” DeZego said. “For a small fee, our quartet will go to a lady’s office or home, sing her two songs and present her with a box of candy.”
Jacobsen likes Valentine’s Day too – and has done up to 20 “love song visits” on one Feb. 14.
“I’ve never seen a woman who wasn’t delighted – although some are a little embarrassed by four guys in tuxes singing to her across the computer,” he said. Jacobsen did remember one woman who was a little unsettled, though.
“It was a driving winter storm, and she kept us standing outside her door in the sleet and rain while our tuxes got drenched,” he said. “But when we were done, she smiled and told us how much she’d enjoyed it!”
Women don’t have to be left out of all the singing fun. While Tallahassee’s Southern Blend, a chapter of The Sweet Adelines International, the female version of barbershop, has decided to relinquish its national charter, there remain a number of mixed-gender choruses and quartets that follow the same guidelines as their all-male counterparts and often perform with them. And then there are the “groupies.”
“Barbershopping is really a way of life,” said Irene Sanders, 69, wife and supporter of tenor Jake Sanders of Roanoke, Va. “The men love it. They’re out a couple of nights, but we know just what they’re doing!” Sanders, who, with her husband, travels to workshops and competitions all over the United States, said it has given a meaning and direction to the couple’s retirement years.
“I wish I could say barbershop singing were a young man’s pastime,” said DeZego, who acts as the Capital Chordsmen’s membership chairman. “It’s true that many of the fellows who sing are retired. At one recent meeting, of 150 men, only three of us were in our 20s.”
To counteract attrition, the society sponsors a Harmony Explorer’s Camp for high school-age singers, provides coaches for newly formed quartets, and puts on workshops on subjects such as “tags” (the harmonic endings of songs) and, for the purists, “the physics of sound.”
And what will DeZego be doing 50 years from now – still singing barbershop?
“Well, I certainly hope so,” said the young engineer. “Singing this kind of close harmony is just so compelling, you never have to stop. And besides, I really love the bad jokes!”