Before you consider barbershop-quartet singing in 2003, ask yourself two questions. First, outside of a boy-band concert, when was the last time you saw four male singers — a bass, a tenor, a baritone and lead — crooning in harmony?
And second, in an era that’s canonized the concept salon, when was the last time you went to an actual barbershop for a haircut?
The Asheville-based Land of the Sky Barbershop Chorus now in its 55th year, brings the harmony but not the scissors to people’s homes or businesses this Valentine’s Day, delivering two songs, a rose and a card.
Think of it as a unique bouquet wrapped in nostalgia.
Barbershop quartets favor a cappella, four-part harmony, and choose popular songs largely written before the invention of radio and the popularization of the phonograph. Land of the Sky’s repertoire, unchanged from the organization’s inception, is replete with songs everyone knows but no one knows why they do.
From Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” to Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” and the folk standard “Sitting on Top of the World,” these tunes, which we usually think of as sung by a single voice, become newly vital under the quartet treatment.
“These songs have been around since 1948,” Land of the Sky’s Lee Clark said in a recent interview. “[There are] hundreds and hundreds of them.
“We don’t carry songbooks when we sing,” Clark, the group’s membership chairman and past president, went on to reveal. “It’s all to memory.”
The barbershop quartet, as with many intriguing institutions, has several different tiers of history.
The short history, and the one most applicable to the Land of the Sky chorus, starts on April 11, 1938 — the day that tax attorney Owen Clifton Cash hosted a meeting in Tulsa, Okla., with 20 like-minded men. The group expressed both its love for barbershop-quartet singing, and its concern over the genre’s fading popularity.
In the spirit of FDR’s New Deal “alphabet-soup” programs, Cash decided to call the new society S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., a deliberately unmusical acronym standing for the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (it’s now known as the Barbershop Harmony Society).
Within a few years, the organization boasted 40,000 members across the United States.
In June 1948, Roney Hilliard, a musical life-insurance salesman, met with some like-minded friends in Asheville. Deciding to start a local chapter of S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A., they dubbed their group a decidedly more lyrical name — the Land of the Sky Barbershop Chorus.
Land of the Sky’s historical records suggest they were an immediate success, garnering more than 100 members and holding annual regional concerts that included quartets from across the Southeast.
The public appeal of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical-turned-movie The Music Man, which features a barbershop quartet, along with a steady interest in nostalgia of any form, sustained attendance at Land of the Sky’s performances — and while the unrest of the 1960s brought on a general cultural shift, barbershop quartets stuck to their “old songs.”
The long history of barbershop quartets is not as well documented.
Musical and historical evidence both support the widely held suspicion that barbershop singing has African-American origins, though the literal “white-washing” of the genre — like many civic organizations, the Barbershop Harmony Society prohibited blacks from joining until 1963, and boasts few minority members today — has made that thread of history difficult to unravel.
Regardless, barbershop harmonies include “blue” notes — the lowered third, seventh and sometimes fifth intervals of the otherwise major scale — which are the foundation of jazz and blues. And many of the songs that quartets now sing were originally staples in minstrel shows (an idea recently explored in director Spike Lee’s unsettling Bamboozled, which argues that today’s TV audiences would still warmly welcome performers in blackface, along with the racial stereotypes that such makeup embodies).
Despite the typical absence of black performers in the genre these days, the older history of barbershop singing still peeks through. In 1992, the Land of the Sky Barbershop Chorus did a show celebrating the work of Al Jolson, the Jewish-American, blackface-wearing song-and-dance man who starred in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture. Not all songs sung by barbershop quartets come from minstrel shows — just as popular are such Tin Pin Alley numbers as “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two),” written by Harry Dacre in 1892. The influence of African-Americans, however, seems almost unquestionable.
But the 30 members of the local chorus claim more interest in fellowship — and the simple pleasure of singing — than in history.
Clark, whose father sang in Land of the Sky in the 1960s, says he joined several years ago after seeing an advertisement for the group. His quartet includes a 16-year-old Asheville High School student, a retiree and an employee of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
“I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” Clark declares. “Once you ring a chord, it’s just unbelievable. You can hear the four parts when the chord is locked in.”
As membership director, Clark is out to increase interest in the group. Though he hopes to add 10 new members this year, he says it’s hard to convince people to sing.
“In the late 1950s, there were 181 members in the chorus,” he explains. “Now there are so many distractions that it’s hard to get interest. If [people] just come and see how fun it is, [they might join]. None of us are great singers; we just get a kick out of it.”
Because of the efforts of the Land of the Sky Barbershop Chorus and others like it, it’s likely that barbershop singers and their old songs will be around for a while longer.
If only barbershops could say the same.