Choosing Repertoire in the Era of Post-Dixie Barbershop

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The discussions about how and to what extent barbershop as a genre and as a community moves away from repertoire that glorifies the Old South is ongoing, and likely to continue for some time. This post is about the more practical question of working out which of the songs in the established barbershop repertoire are likely to be problematic.

I’m assuming that it’s mostly people outside the US who need to walk through this. We have imported a genre, and through mastering its craft have allied ourselves with a worldwide family with whom we identify and share emotional, cognitive and visceral patterns of being. But the repertoire we have imported along with these ways of being doesn’t always bring all of its meanings with it.

For us, the nostalgia for Dixie we participate in when we sing ‘Swannee’ or ‘Old Saint Louis’ is an exotic nostalgia for an imaginary past. It probably bears about as much resemblance to the actual American antebellum South as Disney’s imaginary ‘once upon a time’ bears to the actual European middle ages. So, it’s very easy to miss the clues that a song might be pining for a social order that our conscious selves have no desire to revisit.

Fortunately, there are some practical steps we can take to vet our potential song choices.

  1. Look for the obvious triggers first. A song that includes any of the following words is going to spoil the listening experience for those who are aware of the issues:
    • Dixie
    • Swannee
    • Mammy
    • Cotton
  2. Find the original lyrics from when the song was new. We live in the internet age and this is not hard now, but for starts I’ll point you to this collection from Duke University.

    If you find that the arranger has had to change the lyrics to make them less offensive, that’s a big flag. You’d be surprised how many barbershop standards originally talked about ‘darkies’ rather than ‘folk’, or included dialect forms of words that mimicked African-American speech patterns.

    These changed lyrics are a testament to arrangers’ desires to transcend the historical circumstances of a song’s composition. But they are also the signs of denial, of wanting to pretend everything’s fine when in fact it’s not. If you’re not prepared to sing the original lyrics, you should think quite carefully about singing the sanitised version.

  3. Look at the wider context of the song – when, where, by whom it was written, its performance history, its use in films. This will give you more idea of the wider narratives it has participated in. Once you’ve seen Al Jolson singing a song in blackface, you know that it has participated in affirming racist ideologies, whatever the intent of its composer, and that any member of your audience who has seen that clip will carry that association with them.
  4. When in doubt, social media is your friend. People are very happy to discuss these questions and help you figure out the nuances. In particular, I’d recommend the Facebook group Inclusiveness in Barbershop Singing--Connect. Learn. Share.

The reasons all this matters are twofold. First, song choices are currently causing a good deal of unintended hurt. Valerie Clowes has given permission to quote as illustration this comment about the problem:

Yes, Dixieland One Step is different than a song praising dear ol' mammy. But is it different enough? Consider the effect of singing it to someone less familiar with the lyrics. No it doesn't spit right in our face, it merely hints that sometime really soon it might spit in my face. That is certainly my response (and many of my friends and chorus colleagues) to any less familiar song that mentions Dixie in any form. I instantly tense up and spend the rest of the song waiting for the nasty shoe to drop in the otherwise-nice-enough-so-far song. That's as far as you can get from enjoyment and I promise it's not just me. How well do we actually know our audiences?

Second, singers put so much time and energy and heart into learning and rehearsing songs for performance. It’s not fair to get them to do all this only to have audience members respond with aversion rather than love.

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