Picking Polecats

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The title of this post is one of those that would be reasonably opaque unless you are familiar with the argot of barbershop. For a barbershopper, a ‘polecat’ is a standard song that everybody in your world knows the parts to, and therefore suitable singing at any social occasion where you are meeting barbershoppers you don’t normally hang out with.

For people in the Barbershop Harmony Society, the repertoire is defined by the songs published in a set of books entitled the ‘Barber Pole Cat Program’ (and I imagine that’s where the abbreviation derives from). These have traditionally been ‘old songs’ – classic barbershop standards of the type that the founders of the society in the 1930s were nostalgic about from their youth.

For people in LABBS, it is a rather more miscellaneous collection that originated (I think – this all started before my time) with songs learned throughout the organisation for particular events such as Harmony Colleges, and maintained by common consent. Not every song that has gone out for general release has been embraced by the membership, and some of those that persist do so almost in spite of the efforts of the association’s leadership.

One of the association’s current projects is to expand this core of common repertoire by introducing new official polecats. The organisation has committed to funding copies for the whole membership of one song per year, with the songs doubling up as common repertoire for educational events.

So that’s the background. What I actually wanted to share with you was the experience of being in a group of people tasked with sorting through possibilities for future additions, and what we discovered about the decision-making process for song choice.

Our initial assumptions for the remit were that the songs needed to be:

  • Not too hard, so that everybody could sing them and make a decent job of them
  • Suitable to be sung by up to 2000 people at once
  • Attractive to singers (so they enjoy them), to audiences (so that choruses can include them in regular performance repertoire) and to potential members (so they find the prospect of joining in appealing)

We were also aware of the question of preserving the style. Many of the LABBS polecats at the moment are in the category of cheerful songs arranged in barbershop voicings rather than song that could be considered purist in either origin or arrangement. And as a group, we were cool with that – they have their status because people like singing them and keep doing so, which is as good an argument as any to continue.

But we were also alert to the specific barbershop pleasures of locked and ringing chords, and wanted to make sure we celebrated that fundamentally harmonic experience of the style in our choices for additions.

So we worked through a bundle of songs, assessing their strengths and weakness against these initial criteria, and learning a lot more about our implicit criteria as we went.

Some songs fell immediately at one hurdle while being suitable in other dimensions. For example, one that I had sung in my early years in barbershop is a cracking vehicle for getting lost in the harmony, but I can remember finding it off-puttingly middle-aged in sentiment back when I was 26. I’ll sing it any day among friends now that I’ve got over that reaction (or possibly just got older, ahem), but it fails the potential-member appeal test. Another example did a great job of combining fidelity to the style with audience appeal, but had some chromatic moments in it that were just too fiddly to be safe in a massed-sing context. So we learned that our three basic criteria were non-negotiable: there was no way to trade off between them.

We were also steering between the two poles of simplicity and interest. There are certain limits of range and complexity that we could not breach, but equally several of the songs were just too simple to be genuinely attractive. You could learn them quickly, but you’d forget them quickly too. Barbershop purists will be pleased to hear that one of the primary features that drove these decisions was harmonic variety. Secondary dominants resolving round the circle of fifths, it turns out, put little hooks into our brains where more plainly triadic songs just slid off.

Now, you’ll notice that I’m talking about songs here rather than arrangements, and I think this was central. If the words don’t speak compellingly enough to the people it needs to appeal to, or if the tune doesn’t lift the heart, no amount of clever arranging is going to help. Indeed, one song we looked at had been used at an educational event some years ago and not generally adopted. The arrangement we had to review here was rather better than the one previously distributed, but we felt overall that if it had not been embraced by the membership before, it was unlikely to speak to their condition even in a better form.

And in fact, there were issues with the arrangement of the song we ended up picking, such that a new one has been prepared for its release next year. But do you know how we all knew we were onto a good choice? We all started woodshedding in how we wanted the arrangement to go. The song inveigled everyone in the room to start singing along, and indeed to carry on singing rather longer than we needed to discover we had a good potential candidate on our hands. It over-rode our critical judgement and distracted us into having a good time.

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