For barbershop quartets, the harmonies are sweeter than ever
Admit it: When someone says "barbershop quartet," you imagine straw hats, bow ties, flashy vests and vintage songs like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "Lida Rose."
That stereotype needs a trim around the ears.
Yes, barbershop music remains rooted in distinctive four-part chords, sung a cappella — usually by gender-specific quartets and choruses — but the tunes and shtick are changing, as is the notion that barbershop choruses are all-white relics of a bygone era.
Today's barbershop playlists are more likely to include music by the Beatles or themes from Broadway musicals. There are self-caricaturing songs and creative barbershop stylings of current pop hits.
Some barbershop singers even see their genre as a way to make the world more harmonious by opening the doors, albeit slowly, to members of historically excluded groups.
This evolution stems partly from a focused effort to attract younger singers. In addition, barbershop leaders believe newer melodies can benefit from the old-time harmonic recipe that's heavy on those basic chords.
Not all chords need apply, however. Some — such as raw, unresolved ninths — are frowned upon, while others are actually forbidden during competition.
In Minnesota, where choral music is serious business, high-quality barbershop singing has gained respect from the likes of Brian Newhouse, managing director of Classical MPR. While many classical choral works are more complex than barbershop arrangements, Newhouse believes there is "excellence in every genre." He also says he recognizes "how much work is involved in attaining excellence — hours and days of rehearsal, when you're shoulder to shoulder, trying to lock into your neighbor's harmony."
In January 2019, Newhouse served as a host and judge at a national barbershop competition in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, better known as the home of the Grand Ole Opry. Although his criteria were less technical than those of the formal judging panel, he knows about those verboten chords.
Barbershop quartets comprise a lead singer — usually a tenor — who sings the melody, while a second tenor adds harmony above, a bass harmonizes below and a baritone fills in the middle. Major triads can be complemented by the highly regarded seventh. More dissonant chords are unwelcome, Newhouse says, because they infringe on the traditional four-part tonal vocabulary that separates barbershop harmony from other genres.
"This is an effort to keep some of the barbershop DNA pure," he says.
At the competition, Newhouse focused on overall presentation and sound quality. Were the singers in tune? Did they blend well and offer a sense of ensemble? Did they lock in the unique ringing sound of the best barbershop harmonies?
"Without that, you're just a bunch of guys singing," he says.
It's that ringing sound — flush with overtones and sustained by singers who can hold their collective breath while projecting the traditional chords — that helps lure newcomers to the barbershop ranks.
Toward that end, competitions are held throughout North America for youth quartets. High school students are invited to barbershop concerts, and grants are made to school choral directors to buy barbershop arrangements.
Barbershop choruses haven't cracked the code in attracting younger singers, but Blake Wanger, president of the Minneapolis Commodores, believes the first step may be exposure.
"You've got to hear it to be hooked," he says.
In addition to youth outreach efforts, leaders in the barbershop community are starting to address the fraught history of racial exclusion within the genre's professional organizations and competitions.
Barbershop harmonies evolved from African American gospel traditions and community musical groups in the southern U.S. in the late 19th century. However, when the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America — later rebranded as Barbershop Harmony Society — was founded in 1938, membership was limited to white men.
In a landmark 1941 incident, a black barbershop quartet called the Grand Central Red Caps was excluded from a national competition on racial grounds. In 2017, Barbershop Harmony Society honored the Red Caps, posthumously, as lifetime members and established a scholarship in the group's name.
Today the Society explicitly declares itself open to all potential members, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual preference. People of color were first admitted in 1963, while women were not allowed to join until 2018, more than 70 years after female barbershoppers formed their own organization, the Sweet Adelines.
Denise Baber, of Scandia, Minn., has sung barbershop for nearly 40 years. She says the Sweet Adelines have to work harder to attract singers of color. She recalls an African American woman who once visited a rehearsal of a Sweet Adelines chorus but never returned.
"It's a real slow process," she says.
As for updating historical repertoire, today's audiences are less likely to hear songs with lyrics that cast a rosy glow on plantation life or reflect demeaning racial stereotypes.
"There's not a prohibited list [of songs], but there's a sensitivity by performers to understand their audiences," says Brian Lynch, public relations manager for Barbershop Harmony Society.
At a recent rehearsal of the Minneapolis Commodores, assistant director Dave Bechard urged the group to work on smooth "elevator-shaft consistency" as it slid from one chord to another. Articulation of lyrics must be distinct, and key notes must sound solid and clear, he emphasized.
Despite such hard work — rehearsing, practicing at home with recorded tracks and mastering harmonic detail — barbershop singing is far from a stuffy, somber pastime. At the Commodores' rehearsal, during the usual fast-paced mix of pitch-pipe tones and repetitions of unpolished phrases, a newcomer was invited to stand and face the group as its members sang a brief greeting to the tune of "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay":
"This is our welcome song,
It isn't very long."
[Cheers and laughter]
There's also the quirky practice of barbershop tags — glorified song-ending codas that feature dramatic key changes, glissandos, sustained notes and tones that move in opposite directions. Ensembles take pride in adding their own musical filigree when writing tags. During post-competition parties, it's not unusual for quartets to mingle, learn each other's tags and then sing them together. Some "tagmeisters" have memorized hundreds.
When ringing chords alone are not enough to wow an audience, some quartets add choreography. But synchronized movement can be risky.
"If it's done poorly, it looks hokey," says Jim Emery, a founding member of Minnesota-based chorus Great Northern Union.
Barbershop choruses can include several generations of the same family. Haber says she followed her mother into the culture of barbershop. Friendships formed on the risers, she adds, provide a social glue that keeps members coming back.
Patty Cobb-Baker, national president of the Sweet Adelines, says barbershop singing contributes to its members' "sense of sisterhood." However, membership in the organization has declined from a peak of 30,000 in the late 1980s to roughly 21,000 today.
"We're learning more about marketing ourselves," she says.
The recent popularity of a cappella groups — Pentatonix, in particular — helps recruiting efforts. The visibility of Ragtime Gals, a paradoxically all-male barbershop quartet featuring talk show host Jimmy Fallon, also doesn't hurt.
Besides musical and social connections, there's a growing sense of purpose that goes beyond the next performance. Barbershop Harmony Society's mission is to "bring people together in harmony and fellowship to enrich lives through singing." The Sweet Adelines' motto is, simply, "Harmonize the World."
One advocate for that approach is Dan True, who says he "fell in love" with the barbershop sound when he was in high school in Blue Earth, Minn. After more than three decades, he's still singing in barbershop groups.
Now a member of Great Northern Union, True says he can barely read music but is "a true believer in the altruistic goal of social harmony through singing."
How does that happen?
"If you let the music move you, it will," he says. "Let the sound wash over you, and allow yourself to be changed."
The Minneapolis Commodores will perform at the Lake Como Pavilion on Sunday, Aug. 4, at 3 p.m. The ensemble also will sing the national anthem at Target Field on Sunday, Aug. 11, at 11:45 a.m. and at Maple Grove's Music in the Park on Wednesday, Aug. 14, at 7 p.m.
• In 1982, the Music Gallery quartet, whose members hail from the Minneapolis chapter of the Sweet Adelines, won the national championship.
• In 1957, Harmony Incorporated, a women's barbershop organization, split from the Sweet Adelines in a dispute over the admission of black women. Both groups opened to all races a few years later.
• The Happiness Emporium men's quartet of Minneapolis/St. Paul won the gold medal at the 1975 International Quartet Competition.
• Minnesota has 17 chartered chapters among the 48 in the Land O' Lakes District of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
• Barbershop Harmony Society is based in Nashville, Tenn. Its Harmony University offers live and online master classes in a cappella singing.
• The Sweet Adelines organization is based in Tulsa, Okla.
Dan Wascoe is a retired Star Tribune reporter/columnist and MPR contributor. As a pianist, he has performed the past 12 years with vocalist Baibi Vegners as Nuance/a duo. He also is a volunteer player of the bells in Minneapolis City Hall.