A Snapshot of Barbershop’s Culture Change, Part 1: Song Subject

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A representative sample from a large collection...A representative sample from a large collection...Back when I had first secured the contract to write my book on barbershop, the then Principal of Birmingham Conservatoire asked me in conversation, ‘So, what’s new in barbershop world?’ The question made me laugh, because the culture I was documenting was resolutely focused on celebrating the past, and really didn’t have very much interest in the new at all.

Of course, by that point – the early years of this millemium – the culture was already changing, but it was far from clear that how much of a shift would eventually take place. To be fair, we still don’t know that, but I had an experience recently that brought home how far barbershop has actually shifted since I first encountered it 25 years ago.

The experience was looking through a collection of music from a singer who had been an active barbershopper in the 1980s. He was having a clearout and asked if The Telfordaires wanted his music – we took it off his hands in the knowledge that any our members didn’t want could find a home in the wider barbershop community. (UK peeps – keep a lookout in the New Year for offers!)

The first thing that was a blast from the past was what a treasure trove it was of illegal photocopying, ahem. I was about to say that people are a lot more scrupulous about their music these days, but then I remembered how often people buy only the minimum order from Sheet Music Plus, even when they’ve been in touch to ask me about suitability of an arrangement for their chorus. But still, I think the fact that it is so much easier to source music legally has reduced the line-of-least-resistance culture of rampant photocopying of yesteryear.

The next thing that was really striking was how focused on the past the music was. Barbershop’s emotional attachment to nostalgia has been well documented, not least by Gage Averill, but I had forgotten quite how unremitting that vibe used to be. There were quite a lot of actual old songs, but also a lot of newer songs that either celebrate the old songs specifically (I once started writing a parody: ‘Sing another song about songs like this one…’), or old-fashionedness in general, especially in women. Along with the veneration of the past was, at times, explicit hostility to the new: ‘There’ll be no new tunes on this old piano’.

Now, whilst the content of what you sing does not necessarily equate to your personal belief structure (characterisation, imagination, suspension of disbelief are all part of what we do in inhabiting a song’s persona), the combination of this unalleviated ideological deluge with the barbershop aesthetic of sincerity, of singing from the heart, has to have shaped the general ethos of the community.

We’re used to thinking about this in stylistic terms: the repressiveness of the old Arrangement Category, with its power to disqualify if you accumulated a relatively modest collection of stylistic infractions, and the stern reminders to Keep It Barbershop even in your social singing outside of the contest arena. But without the general orientation towards an idealised past, these strictures would have revealed themselves to be as arbitrary as they in fact were.

When I was new in barbershop in the late 1990s, I was bemused to find harmonies from swing jazz referred to as ‘modern’, and didn’t really have the perspective to see Michigan Jake as all that innovative. I admired them to bits, of course, for their skills and musicianship, but still, 1940s music still counted, in my head, as ‘the old songs’. But put against the background of the 1980s collection of barbershop music and the magnitude of their adventurousness really comes into focus.

It’s interesting to note, in the context of the relationship between song subject matter and cultural values, that the two Jake songs that entered the repertoire as standards were both much more future-focused: ‘You Make Me Feel So Young’ and ‘I’m Beginning to See the Light’.

Of course, enough time has passed that the ‘modern’ songs we now think of as showing how much more with-it we are – i.e. from the 1980s – are still 30 years old. Barbershop apparently still maintains its long tradition of middle-aged people loving the songs of their youth. But we do also have some genuinely modern songs coming to the barbershop stage within five years of their first release.

And, underpinning the changing relationship with time, we are seeing the songs of nostalgia balanced with songs whose subject matter is more future-oriented. My dad used to quote Humphrey Lyttelton as saying, ‘There are two kinds of fool in this world: those who say, ‘This is old, therefore it is good,’ and those who say, ‘This is new, therefore it is better’. I don’t think barbershop is going to lose its love of the old songs any time soon – at least of some of them (some are best left in the past) – but it seems to me that that opening up to the new offers a culture more likely to survive and thrive. Preservation *and* Encouragement, indeed.

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