Barbershop: the uniquely American sound of music
Up where we live, the unofficial end of Mud and Tick Season is marked by the Spring Concert of The Grand Chorale which is the local chapter of The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA). The high school auditorium is usually packed; mainly, because folks know the singing will be wonderful. But it also provides an opportunity to look around and see who survived the winter.
Each year the singing and the staging of the concert get better and better. After a decade of weekly practices, the local barbershop chorus and its two separate quartets have progressed to the point where they are competitive with some of the best SPEBSQSA groups in the Rockies. But the sights and sounds of The Grand Chorale always transport this observer back to another time and another place.
In high school, I worked part-time in Youngheim’s Department Store. Mr. Johnny Youngheim, the owner, and, Mr. “Ben” Franklin, who ran the men’s department, loved to sing barbershop. Whenever the owner of the jewelry store across the street (a tenor) dropped by, I would be summoned from my shelf-stocking duties and the four of us would gather by the cash register.
What happened next usually had a startling effect on our unsuspecting customers. Without preamble or introduction, they would hear three grown men and a boy break out with: “The old songs. The old songs. Those good old songs for me. I love to hear those minor chords and good, close harmony.” Of course, we would wring out the phrase “those minor chords” with all the four-part harmony we could muster.
Our regular customers took these singing outbursts in stride. But out-of-town visitors, especially around the time of the Indian Fair, would either applaud or, out of embarrassment, become more deeply engrossed in their shopping. Our singing must not have been too bad because I don’t recall anyone running for the front door. Maybe they were just too polite.
Once a year, there was a barbershop concert in the high school auditorium. Some of the top quartets in the land would come from Oklahoma City or Dallas to headline the concert. At a time when television was in its infancy and other forms of “professional” entertainment took place many miles away, those concerts seemed awesome.
Much later in life, I happened to stay in a hotel that was playing host to a SPEBSQSA convention. When the SPEBSQSA is gathered for a regional or national competition, the sound of music is everywhere. They sing in the halls. They sing in the lobby. They even sing in the elevators. Being trapped in an elevator with a great barbershop quartet is an experience to be remembered. Barbershop fans hope the ride will never end. Those who don’t like barbershop singing hope the cable will break.
But all Americans should all be proud of the SPEBSQSA, The chords and the phrasing of American barbershop quartet singing are unique, In the almost 100 counties visited by this observer, I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
That is not to say that other countries don’t produce amateur vocal groups. It seems like every town in Wales has great male choirs. One evening, this observer was having a quiet dinner in Oberammergau and didn’t realize most of the other diners belonged to a touring church choir from another German town. At the end of their meal, to our surprise and delight, the choir burst into song. The combination of the gorgeous Bavarian scenery and the beautiful voices gave new meaning to “the sound of music.”
But give me a good old American barbershop quartet or choir every time. Barbershop is one of America’s gifts to music. The wholesome entertainment provided by SPEBSQSA is a vast improvement over the “professional” sewage flowing from Hollywood, New York and, all too often, even from Orlando. Let’s keep America singing!
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today.