What’s New About Barbershop?
Everybody knows barbershop is old—old songs sung by grey-haired guys, probably wearing straw hats and armbands. Think of the Buffalo Bills playing the members of the Board of Education in The Music Man: “Good Night, Ladies; Good Night, Ladies….” The Barbershop Harmony Society has been around since its founding in 1938 in Tulsa.So what’s new about it? Well, when my chorus, Harmony Express, entertains a Montgomery County audience, we sing a medley of Beach Boys songs, or the Beatles satire “When I’m 64,” or something from Les Miserables. No more “Sweet Adeline.” Last year, 19-year-olds were the largest crop of new Society members. And the 2012 quartet champion is from Sweden!
I would add a video clip here to demonstrate the modern barbershop sound, but Harmony Express doesn’t have one yet. We’re new, too, formed in 2009. We just offered our prophetically-named First Annual Show in Rockville last September, and we’re still processing the videotape from that performance. In the meantime, curious readers can go to www.barbershop.org, the website of the Barbershop Harmony Society. There you will find performance clips of the 2013 quartet champs, Masterpiece, and the 2013 chorus champs, Northern Lights from Toronto.
So barbershop is not just about quartets anymore? There are full choruses, too? Oh, yes, some of them quite large and sophisticated. But that’s a topic for another post.
It’s best, I think, to see harmony in the barbershop style as part of the recent spread of a capella singing groups across the country, especially on college campuses. What we in Harmony Express do has roots in the past, it’s true. Barbershop harmonizing became a popular American art form in the late 19th century, about the same time that jazz and the blues emerged from African American roots. But Harmony Express also has an ear tuned to the future, and we rarely sing “Sweet Adeline.”