Barbershop and its Emotional Registers
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.