On the Whitewashing of Barbershop: A Case Study

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Shine on meShine on me

This probably won’t be a long one as I’m not sure I have much more to say than, ‘Uh, look at this, the record needs correcting,’ but we’ll see how we go.

We all know by now that barbershop was originally an African American genre (though there was a considerable level of interchange between white and black traditions in its heyday as a commercial genre in the early years of the recording industry). We also know that when a revivalist movement in the 1930s led to the formation of the Organisation Formerly Known As the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America (or TOFKASPEBSQSA as I like to think of it), the new institution not only excluded African Americans from its membership, but also systematically removed any mention of the genre’s black origins from its standard narratives.

It’s very easy to think that was all in the past and that now the historical record has been corrected we’re all done. Whereas in fact there are all kinds of ways in which we’re still living with the legacy of those decisions, usually without realising.

I was looking at one of the standard polecats, ‘Shine on Me,’ recently in preparation to sharing it in a workshop my chorus was hosting. I’ve known it since my early days in barbershop - that’s about half my life by now, gulp - so I thought the prep was just going to be checking back to remind myself of all four parts.

But it’s funny how you look at things differently when you will be seeing them through the eyes of people who are not familiar with them. And for the first time it occurred to me to wonder about B.B. McKinney, to whom the words are attributed on the sheet music. Turns out he was a prolific hymn-writer in the first half of the 20tth century. That’s interesting, I thought, I’d always assumed this one came from the gospel/spiritual tradition, what with its metaphors of technology as grace, and would have been a bit older than McKinney’s era, given the nature of the metaphor.

I found a great resource that listed all of McKinney’s work…and it did not include this song. I then googled the lyrics, as you do, and found the same site (and various others) listing it as a negro spiritual.

So, it seems that when they published the song in 1959, the Barbershop Harmony Society chose to attribute the lyrics to a white hymnodist rather than acknowledge its black origins. I don’t suppose we should be surprised, as this was pretty much the most white supremacist phase of the organisation.* But we should ask that the record be corrected in line with the BHS’s avowed current policy of Everyone in Harmony, which was after all headlined with a clear apology for all the years of whitewashing and exclusion.

Addendum: to be fair, the longer version of this song that appears in the Heritage of Harmony songbook (published 1988) removes the attribution to McKinney, although it doesn’t go as far as recognising that African Americans actually existed.

* If you weren’t aware that this was the case, I invite you to look at the work of Clifton Boyd, from whom many illuminating things can be learned.

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