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Diversity, Revisionism and the Pitfalls of Ambition: A Barbershop Case Study

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Music history, like any history, isn’t a neutral portrayal of the past, but the result of a value-laden selection process. Somebody decides what counts as salient historical fact worthy to be included in the narrative.

Revisionist history comes about when someone notices that the choices underlying the narratives we have inherited about our pasts no longer chime well with the values with which we aspire to live our presents. They then go and dig out information about people and events that had hitherto been omitted, and they re-interpret those already included, sometimes finding quite different meanings in them.

One of the rewarding things about being a scholar of barbershop is the way it acts as a microcosm for cultural processes that would be unwieldy to document in a wider context. This past week has presented a wonderfully rich case study of an attempt at revisionist history as a means to redirect the present and future. It is an attempt that encompasses elements of both courageous success and abject failure, and it has taken me several days to stop being so enraged by the latter that I can write about it with any hope of balance.

You may wish to equip yourself with a cup of tea at this point. I doubt this is going to be short, and it’s too important to break up into a series of posts.

For those whose social media bubble doesn’t include barbershoppers, the big event in the last week is that the Barbershop Harmony Society released a video detailing a strategic vision that focused on diversity. This is a major step for an organisation that for much of its recent history had a distinctly inward-looking culture, in which ‘preservation’ meant a mandated conformity, articulated formally in terms of musical style, but enforced in many more aspects of both musical and social behaviour.

It is also, let us remark, a brave and pointed message to broadcast at this point in America’s political history. The BHS has traditionally positioned itself as small-c conservative: apolitical, but with an avowed respect for family, social cohesion, and continuity with the past. Nostalgia is its primary emotional register. In adopting the language of diversity, the BHS is, on the face of it, repositioning itself more in line with the political discourses of liberalism and the ‘progressive’.

In the fraught and combative landscape of today’s political discourses, that must feel like a huge step to take. Of course, beyond the liberal-conservative dichotomies of twitterstorms, the shift is actually less a changing of sides than a reinterpretation of an existing position. They are taking their long-held beliefs in social cohesion, in harmony as both metaphor for and enactment of human connection, and saying: we mean this, all humans.* Still, it feels important to hear this stated so clearly in 2017.

The aspect of this they have done stupendously well is in the way they have embraced the African American origins of the style. When Lynn Abbott published his ground-breaking article in 1992 that documented these origins, the official histories of barbershop were exclusively white, even in some cases trying to connect the style back to a European origin through a fleeting (and musicologically irrelevant) remark in Samuel Pepys’s diary. Through Jim Henry’s PhD and David Wright’s educational efforts within the BHS, and the publication of Gage Averill’s Four Parts, No Waiting in 2003, the older narratives have gradually been supplanted.

This video articulates the culmination of that revisionist process. It strikingly headlines its narrative of barbershop history by stating the African-American origins of the genre. It subsequently closes, after the sections on history and plans for the future, with an explicit mea culpa for the many decades in which Black singers were excluded from the Society, and acknowledging that this is all the more egregious given the style’s origins.

The placement of these statements, at the very start and the very end of the story give them perceptual importance. They set up the trajectory of the narrative from the get-go, and then the final impression the viewer is left with is of an organisation sincerely committed to transcending its past. And the overwhelmingly positive response to the video testifies to the believability of that commitment. This is not just lip-service to diversity, according to its reception over the last few days, but a genuine opening-out.

So, this is the case study of revisionist history done well, successfully building trust with those previously omitted from the narrative. Intertwined with it is a case study of why you need to revise those narratives if you are not to undermine trust and sour relationships.

The BHS, as I remarked above, has traditionally been inward-looking, and one symptom of this is the tendency to tell the story of barbershop as if it is the same as the history of the Society. It is a thus an entirely male-dominated narrative, not just in content, but in the value placed on homosocial bonding. It’s not that it just happens to be men-only, that is, but there is a genuine pleasure evinced in being men together. You can hear it in the way the word ‘men’ is intoned repeatedly during the first two minutes of the video: ‘Men joined by the thousands….men cooperated…power to change men for the better.’

Which is nice for them, of course. The concomitant assumption that they own barbershop is kind of irritating though. If I had a pint for every time someone said to me, ‘Oh do women sing barbershop too?’, my beer budget would be sorted for the rest of my life. Yes, women sing barbershop with great dedication and in many countries they outnumber the men doing it.

And we’re used this narrative. OC Cash, Rupert Hall, camaraderie, male bonding, happily ever after. I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at its wholesale, almost ritual repetition at the start were it not for the turn the video took as it went on. The first moment that jarred was at 4.30: ‘How can we use what we have learned about getting men to sing together to get everyone singing together…?’

Eh? If you take everyone, remove the subset of men, you are left with women. But then the sentence finishes, ‘…across cultures and generations’. So, maybe the word ‘men’, when intoned with that ‘aren’t we special to be men’ kind of inflection, means ‘the men we have hitherto had as members,’ whilst ‘everyone’ means not just ‘add women’, but ‘add all those other groups that middle-aged white men feel more important than’.

I didn’t dig into this sentence in such detail on first watching of course – just felt the dissonance. But it encapsulates a lot of the complexities of the ways social relations are embedded in language, in really interesting ways. Whilst the intent is to embrace diversity, the articulation of the concept of ‘everyone’ in contradistinction to ‘men’ reinscribes the very barriers it is trying to eliminate.

This passing dissonance comes screaming into the foreground shortly afterwards where the plans are announced to add a women’s organisation and a mixed organisation to the male-only BHS. At no point in the video hitherto has there been any hint of an acknowledgement that women already have well-developed barbershop organisations going back nearly as long as the BHS has existed. In the frames of the video leading up to this moment we have seen a few glimpses of female singers – first in informal settings, then in an octet with a men’s quartet, then a whole female quartet together – but none of the existing women’s organisations who would have nurtured these young women are mentioned at any point in the narrative.

Note, too: these women are all young. Whilst there are plenty of images of grey-haired men, all the female barbershoppers visible were under 30, many in their teens. This may be simply part of the general invisibility of middle-aged and older women in public sphere, or it may be more specifically part of a narrative that casts women’s barbershop as a new thing that the BHS have just thought of for themselves.

There are similar thoughts to be had about international barbershop. At no point does the video recognise that there are barbershop organisations (men’s, women’s, and mixed) all over the world, many of which the BHS already works with in mostly supportive and encouraging ways.

It is unfortunate, really, that the section that introduces these new (to the BHS) areas of activity concludes with the words: ‘The Society will not only make a bigger impact the world over, we’ll have the increased revenue streams to support our founding purposes.’

This doesn’t feel like outreach, it feels like poaching. It feels like taking the painstaking work others have done with different demographics, and appropriating the fruits of their efforts. It is not collegiality, it’s colonialism.

Here’s a hint. If you want to build harmonious relationships with other organisations, it’s a good idea not to pretend in your publicity material that they don’t exist. As far as I can tell, the BHS didn’t discuss this expansionist policy with either their sister organisations or their overseas affiliates before springing it on the world. I’m not directly involved at the executive level of any of them, but I am well-enough connected with those who are that I would have expected to have heard an ‘oh yes, we’ve been discussing this for a few months’ from somewhere by now if it had happened.

Instead, we have blandly (and in one case embarrassingly tactless, later edited) affirmative public statements clearly written from behind fixed smiles, grappling with the complexity of needing to applaud the commitment to diversity, whilst no doubt sorely pissed off with and not a little threatened by the breath-taking arrogance of the expansionism.

From the perspective of organisational politics, there are complexities here. The BHS strategy is clearly way ahead of Sweet Adelines in terms of its diversity agenda. SAI get prodded into token gestures every so often, but have undergone very little real change of culture, and I do know people who are getting mightily fed up of doing the prodding and who may welcome the chance to jump ship to an apparently more welcoming environment.

And the BHS has made massive strides in the way it works with women over the last 20 years. Before 2004, for example, the BHS had never had a woman judge a contest, even though Harmony Incorporated had been sharing BHS judge training for years. Now the BHS accepts women directly onto its own judging programme. (Although in both cases, I note, the UK organisations are ahead on this metric…)

So I want to believe in the good faith of my friends and barbershop brothers, with whom I have warm and mutually enriching relationships. That fundamental ethos of the human value in connecting together in harmony is genuinely the basis for real and lasting bonds, from which we all emerge as more musical and kinder people.

But the male-centric organisation is so accustomed to defining itself as the centre of the barbershop universe, that it can’t even see how dismissive it is to tell its standard narrative, without revision, and then think they can incorporate women and foreigners without any further groundwork. The reason we believe the commitment to diversity of race is that they have updated their history to recognise both the essential contributions of and the wrongs committed against African Americans.

If Everyone in Harmony’ is to be taken as a similarly sincere, rather than financially opportunistic, slogan with regard to women and world-wide barbershop, the standard narrative needs updating. We need to hear about the Chordettes, about Renée Craig’s contributions to the craft of barbershop arranging, of the Growing Girls’ status as the first International champion quartet from outside North America, about BinG!’s pioneering work with mixed quartets and choruses. We need a soundtrack that includes female voices as well as male, and indeed doesn’t include date-rape songs like ‘Why do they always say no?’ We need to feel like we belong already, because we thought we did.

(And of course, the whole question of repertoire and inclusion is another big can of worms that goes beyond the scope of this video. But there’s an awful lot of music in the barbershop world that comes over as unwelcoming along lines of race, sex or heteronormativity. That steam ship could be quite hard to turn around.)

At this point, in the interests of fairness, I should point out that the written version of the strategy does recognise, in brief, that women’s organisations and the world beyond North America, have existed all along. But that’s not the version that has been plastered all over the world’s social media, and it’s not the version in which the choices of music and imagery exacerbate the inequalities in the spoken text. There are a lot of separate editing decisions that add up to a sub-text that denies the legitimacy of those the BHS claims it wishes to embrace.

Beyond the confines of the barbershop case study, we should note that it is all too easy to tell a culturally-exclusive and male-dominated story without really noticing. The standard narratives of classical music are, after all, almost entirely Euro-centric and male, and it is perfectly possible to operate as a female professional musician without ever playing music written by women. People genuinely think that there weren’t very many female composers of the past, and that those that existed weren’t very good. Not because they are sexist in their attitudes, but because they assume that women didn’t get the right opportunities. The stories we are used to are the ones we tell and re-tell without necessarily noticing their omissions, even when it is we ourselves who are omitted. This is the power of the writers of history – they can either immortalise or erase our heritage.

And this is why the BHS needs to take its approach to historical narrative as seriously as it claims to take its commitment to diversity. The scholar in me is delighted to find such an interesting case study in the intersections between different forms of exclusion, and on the relationship between historical narrative and imagined identity. The (female, British) barbershopper in me is simultaneously delighted and appalled at how they’ve gone about this.

On the bright side, one of the commitments the Strategic Vision makes is to take the process of feedback and review seriously. So please see this as contributing to that process. I will finish by articulating two specific things the BHS can do to improve the chances of success of their goal to get Everyone in Harmony.

  1. Engage with other barbershop organisations as an integral part of the strategy. Useful models to note include Barbershop in Harmony in the UK and the European Harmony Alliance across Europe, both of which coordinate collaborations between different barbershop organisations to produce a variety of events and activities to mutual benefit, without treading on each others’ toes.
  2. Re-write your history to include the people you now want to engage with. Celebrate their past contributions, apologise if need be for past exclusions. You already know how to do this, but you can’t just do it for one group and expect it to count for everyone you’ve previously ignored.

* Since I am publishing this on July 4th, it seems apposite to draw a comparison with the way that Frederick Douglass used the principles of the United States’ Constitution to criticise the slave trade in 1852. It is a powerful thing when people start to take their own rhetoric seriously.

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