Barbershop and its Emotional Registers

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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.

(Interestingly, Richard Mook has documented how the repertoire sung back in the 1900s was rather more varied than that retained from the era by the modern genre - in becoming nostalgic for the early years of the style, later barbershoppers selectively remembered the most nostalgic songs from those early years.)

In a related vein, one of the things that first struck me when I encountered barbershop was the sheer self-referentiality of so many of the songs. Much of what one might call neo-barbershop - that is, songs written by barbershoppers for barbershoppers rather than pre-existent songs adopted into the repertoire - explicitly celebrates the style and its values: ‘I love to hear that old barbershop style’, Give me a barbershop song’, ‘How we sang today’. Though of course this isn’t a new phenomenon: ‘The old songs’ itself dates back to 1921.

I was thinking about this recently whilst looking for a song that would be suitable for a short workshop introducing the barbershop style to singers unfamiliar with it. There were all the usual practical considerations: short enough to teach quickly from scratch, voice ranges that can be made to work with a mixed rather than single-sex group when you’re not sure how many of each you’re going to get, legal to make photocopies.

But there were also the questions of what will represent the style well, what will help people get it. So, one would be looking for certain technical musical features: lots of nice ringy major triads and secondary dominant 7ths, with a good smattering of colour chords, predominantly homophonic to get those chords lined up, and with some classic embellishments to savour.

But as I was looking through a lot of the polecat-type songs of yesteryear, I realised that to an outsider, they may just seem, well, old. Quaint, maybe, probably overly sentimental to the point of cheesy, but not imbued with any particular emotional connection. They had the musical characteristics, but unless you already knew the emotional world of barbershop from the inside, they may not help you get why people love them so much.

This suddenly gave me an insight into the function of the neo-barbershop self-referential song. It is there to introduce new singers to the emotional world of pleasurable nostalgia, and hooking it up to the harmonic pleasures that Gage calls ‘romancing the tone’. Once you get ringing chords, you’ll be up all night tagging and singing Boston Common tunes with the most obsessive of them; until you experience that particular social and kinaesthetic buzz, it just sounds like baffling Victoriana.

Anyway, having done this repertoire trawl, I’d like to recommend Joe Liles’s ‘One More Song’ as a good choice that meets all those practical needs I mentioned, but also gives a route into barbershop’s specific emotional registers. I quite like it as an example of a particular subset of self-referential barbershop nostalgia: it is a song about looking forward to feeling nostalgic.

(And actually, there’s quite a lot of non-self-referential repertoire in this sub-category now I think about it: ‘When the gold turns to grey’, When I grow too old to dream’.)

The other thing that this got me thinking about was of course the perpetually ongoing debates about ‘preservation’ versus ‘progressiveness’ in the barbershop style, which I’ve written about in both scholarly and blog contexts over the years. And how this debate is always carried on in terms of technical musical features and/or age (and by extension, coolness) of song, when actually the battle-ground is far more about the emotional shapes and modes of expression.

The ‘modern’ songs that audiences question are those where the transition into the barbershop style either changes the emotional shape of a well-known original to such an extent that people lose the connection with it, or those where the arrangement and performance stay faithful to that different emotional shape and so don’t deliver the affective kick a contest audience expects. In my days as a music judge, I would every so often have people accost me about why a particular song had not been penalised, and I would have to say that it met all the technical requirements of the style.

I thus learned that the technical requirements are in some ways a proxy for the expressive demands that audience places on the music, in that they give objective measures as to the likelihood of fulfilling them, but - for a listener - do not substitute for the holistic effect.

Conversely, there are songs like ‘Once upon a time’, which is - even in Rob Campbell’s arrangement, which is the barbershoppiest I have heard of this song - rather marginal according to the letter of the style description, but has nonetheless been acclaimed by the barbershop community as core repertoire despite judgely discouragement when it first appeared. It may be short of secondary dominants, but it ticks all the boxes for yearniness (and, indeed, strong voicings).

In summary: It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ring.

I'd love to sing more polecats and some of the "cheesier" older songs - precisely because they ring so much - but my chorus hates most of them with a passion, having sung them (badly, by their own admission) too much in the years before I joined :P

On the bright side, as they are standard repertoire, you should be able to find some people to have a sing with at wider barbershop events. Jonathan & I have a couple of friends that we see twice a year, and we always share a polecat or two.

Really cool article Liz—thanks for writing it and sharing. This touches on something I've been thinking about for sometime, which is that barbershop is a remarkably physical style of music making.

One of the core aesthetic concerns of barbershop, of course, is the ringing chord. The ringing chord is an extremely physical, or corporeal, thing; that is to say the sensation of hearing the chord is the important experience. This is opposed to other styles of music like fugues that rely upon an intellectual understanding of how the various voices interact, and how the fugue's subject is used by those voices. Barbershop on the other hand is about the sound of a ringing chord going into your ear.

What you touch on here that's fascinating (and it's the subject of an article I'm writing which I plan to submit to an academic journal here in the States) is that our repertoire supports supports the physical aesthetic of the style. It does this by: 1) having lots of chords to ring, and voicing them in ways that facilitate the ease of tuning; and 2) making use of subjects that are about actual places, people, and things rather than abstract ideas. Even the two songs you mention that aren't self-referential to the style—"When the gold turns to grey", and "When I grow too old to dream"—both deal with the physical process and implications of aging.

These kinds of songs reinforce the need for honest emotional expression, which is also incredibly important to the style and a successful performance. There is something essentially false about seeing people perform on a stage. They're doing something rehearsed and not spontaneous. They're not reacting to the world, and that's not what we as barbershoppers want. Instead we want to experience honest emotional expression from our performers. We want to see and hear them actually feeling something; we need them to be a real, or physical thing in front of us. Repertoire whose subject matter deals with actual events, people, places, etc. assists both the performers and audience in this way. It's much easier to relate to an actual thing you've experienced than to relate to an idea or concept.

Take a quick look at the Polecats, eight of the 12 Polecats deal with specific places, people, or events. The songs' lyrics set up a pretty clear scene and deal with the actual events and lives of the characters, rather than drawing upon metaphors. The other song you've mentioned, "Once upon a time," also conforms to this idea with descriptions of the lost lover's hair and the tree on the hill.

Now there are certainly tons of songs that don't rely upon these physical lyrics that cross the contest stage, but I contend that it's the songs that reference concrete things that have the most staying power. When this is taken in conjunction with the phenomenon of the ringing chord, we find a style of music that is deeply rooted in corporeal experience, rather than abstract understanding.

Thanks again for the great article. I'd love to get your thoughts on my article once I've got the next draft completed.

Thanks for coming along and responding in such depth Jude.

a style of music that is deeply rooted in corporeal experience, rather than abstract understanding

I think you're right on the money here, but I do wonder to what extent this is unique to barbershop. The thoughts that are bubbling at the back of my head here are the ideas of Arnie Cox (understanding musical meaning through mirror neurons) and those who have used Lakoff and Johnson's theories of metaphor applied to music (which see *all* abstract thought rooted in concrete bodily experience). I used these in my second book to understand musical gesture in choral conducting, and found myself thereby understanding musical traditions as being stored and passed on through shared style-specific body languages.

Yes, you certainly bring up a good point, and I don't claim corporeality as something unique to the barbershop style. Many kinds of dance music are certainly just as concerned with body experience. Additionally, you're right to mention that all music is essentially a corporeal experience since we experience sound via the body through the sensation of hearing. I guess the issue is how much a specific musical tradition embraces that reality.

There's a chapter in the 1988 collection of essays about barbershop whose title momentarily escapes me that talks about barbershop as a kind of specially 'authentic', unmediated form of music. I find the argument unconvincing at best, but the underlying quality it attempts to capture is still there, and may be to do with this sense of kinaesthetic pleasure.

I think I am arguing myself towards a position in which barbershop is not unique in the fact it configures its expressive world via embodied ways of being, but it is distinctive in the forms these patterns of feeling take.

What was the name of the collection of essays? I recall running across it when I started doing barbershop research back a few years ago. As for whether barbershop is an "authentic" form of music, I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole. I do my best to stay as far away as I can from authenticity debates.

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