Barbershop and its Comedic Registers

StormfrontSo, after reflecting recently on how barbershop has certain emotional registers that feel more central to the genre that others - in particular certain flavours of nostalgia - I started to think about the genre’s relationship with comedy. The vaudeville heritage of the style roots it in light entertainment, and indeed the outsider’s stereotypical view of the genre is that its default setting is to get you laughing.

(As I document in Chapter 4 of my barbershop book, one of the things I discovered when I started writing about the genre was that if you show a room full of musicologists a video clip of men in pink tuxedos singing a ballad, they will snigger, even if the song is a heartfelt paean to love lost. It was fun, mind you, when I started giving papers that opened with this phenomenon and then went on discuss why outsiders felt the need to laugh.)

Workshopping with Magenta


Sunday afternoon saw hordes of barbershoppers thronging into my erstwhile place of work for the British Association of Barbershop Singers’ annual Quartet Prelims, at which quartets compete to qualify to sing at the annual convention in May. It feels most ungrateful of me, then, to have missed the entire occasion, with so many friends and so much interesting music coming right to my own home patch.

But I spent the day instead just three minutes’ walk away in the city’s glorious new library, leading a workshop with Magenta that involved choir and guests learning a brand new arrangement in a bit less than 3 hours, then performing in the Book Rotunda that lies at the heart of the building. Magenta has offered these workshops every so often over the years, previously as our contribution to Moseley Festival each summer, but this was the first time we’d done one in the city centre with city-wide publicity.

Tags and Tessitura

As you’ll know if you’ve either read my first book or hung out with barbershoppers for more than five minutes, barbershoppers do like tags.* They like to sing them all night as a social activity, and when they have to sit in an audience and keep quiet, they like the people on stage to sing them for them. Hearing a someone nail a good long post and some serious chord worship gives a particular style of vicarious pleasure that is amplified by all the hours spent in stairwells attempting it yourself.

This is, I suspect, the reason why the genre has developed the phenomenon of the ‘out of context tag’. The arrangement charts its way through the journey of the song, and just as it is heading into where it should culminate, it suddenly dives off into a screaming tag from nowhere. An outsider might think: why would you do that? But an insider knows they do it because the other insiders in the audience will respond with delight.

Barbershop and its Emotional Registers

The embodiment of nostalgia...The embodiment of nostalgia...That barbershop is a genre founded on nostalgia is well-documented. Gage Averill’s monumental history of the tradition in America discusses in detail how the revival of the later 1930s invested the music from before the First World War with a yearning for the days before modernity, carnage and economic meltdown. The Disneyesque image of ‘traditional’ Main Street America was constructed in retrospect, after it had gone.

And of course much of the classic repertoire is built around nostalgia. ‘I wonder what has happened to that old quartet of mine’ conflates loss of youth with loss of music in its purest form, while many of the golden-era songs themselves look back to the world left behind when immigrants came to make a new life in the new world: that tumble-down shack in Athlone may sound picturesque, but it is also a picture of poverty and famine.

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