They’d rather sing than eat

The barbershop-quartet singing that grandpa knew has caught fire again all over North America, with thousands warbling the old favorites—except Sweet Adeline: she’s too low-brow

JOAN DOTY December 10 1955

They’d rather sing than eat

The barbershop-quartet singing that grandpa knew has caught fire again all over North America, with thousands warbling the old favorites—except Sweet Adeline: she’s too low-brow

JOAN DOTY December 10 1955

They’d rather sing than eat

The barbershop-quartet singing that grandpa knew has caught fire again all over North America, with thousands warbling the old favorites—except Sweet Adeline: she’s too low-brow


IN A Toronto church hall last winter, after a concert of songs bya barbershop quartet, an elderly

woman lingered at the edge of the departing crowd. Timidly, she made her way over to one of the singers. “That was a wonderful concert,” she said. “Why, I had no idea barbers could sing so well!”

The singer winced. As a member of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, he was horrified that anyone wouldn’t know that barbershop is a song style of unaccompanied four-part harmony, and not a place where singers work.

The style took its name from the barbershop, for it was there in the last century that men gathered for gossip and off-the-cuff harmonizing. The exponents who brought it on stage in the Nineties sometimes wore barbers’ aprons, but there the relationship ended. Of the SPEBSQSA members who have sworn “to maintain barbershop quartet singing as a traditional form of American folk music” few are old enough to remember the back rooms of tonsorial parlors, or the days when My Gal Sal was the rage. They are in the society because they love to sing especially in the informal satisfying style of a barbershop quartet.

This was the reason the society’s founders got together in the first place. In 1938 Owen C. Gash, a tax attorney in Tulsa, Okla., rounded up a few men who liked to sing the old songs and harmonize. Soon his singing club, which held an annual competition, spread through the United States and crept over the border into Ganada where a Windsor, Ont., chapter was formed in 1943. Although today the society has twenty-five thousand members, including fourteen hundred Canadians, it has only one paid executive a secretary who runs SPEBSQSA headquarters in Detroit, Mich. In exchange for the chance to sing barbershop in quartets and choruses, the society asks an annual fee of five to fifteen dollars from

members who must be “congenial men of good character who love harmony in music or have a desire to harmonize.”

These easy qualifications are one reason why the society has swept the continent. Generally, it doesn’t matter whether a man has a voice like a nightingale or a cement mixer; if he likes harmony and likes to sing, the society will let him. Relatively few SPEBSQSA members have had any formal music training; the majority can’t read music and many can barely carry a tune. Of course, the society welcomes men with a good ear for harmony, but often the hardest workers are the “crows” men who love to sing but whose voices are for the birds.

Another reason for the popularity of barbershop is the thrill singers get out of creating harmony chords. To those who know it and sing it, barbershop has a ring all of its own—the ring comes from the harmony chords. In quartets or choruses, the lead singers handle a melody, while tenors, baritones and basses provide a chord to harmonize with each note. Because barbershop is never accompanied by a musical instrument, each singer must depend on his ear to adjust to tone changes of the other voices. Barbershoppers say the thrill of hitting a chord just right sends smiles vibrating to their boots.

This delight in harmony melts all differences in age, nationality, income and language. A Danish singer in the Montreal chapter can’t speak English but he can sound every word in Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie. Even international boundaries provide no thorns for barbershoppers. Two men in Boissevain, Man., had kicked songs around for years with any local citizens willing to make up a quartet. Then these two

a baritone and a bass—met a man from Upham, North Dakota, who once sang lead in a quartet. They decided to get together if they could find a tenor. They did he lived in Bottineau, North Dakota, twenty-five miles from Upham and fifty miles from Boissevain. The four, who called themselves the Americanadians, would meet every Thursday at the U. S. town of Dunseith,

which is

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They'd Rather Sing Than Eat


almost equidistant from Boissevain and Upham.

Another four were inmates of a prison in Montgomery, Ala. When one was offered a parole, he turned it down so he could go on singing. Then, last July, when the four were returning from a singing engagement, they overpowered the guards and escaped. If they’re still together today, one tune they’re not singing is Alabamy Bound.

In the SPEBSQSA. members bellow just as lustily for Ida! Sweet As Apple Cider whether they’re flannel-suited bank managers or messenger boys in blue jeans. The East York chapter in Toronto has singers from seventeen to seventy, and they include a postman, salesman, artist, fireman, customs broker, florist and truck driver. A charter member is forty-five-year-old Walter Elliott, the president of a market-research firm in Toronto. Every fall he invites the whole chapter to his cottage for a week-end outing which inevitably turns into a two-day singsong.

In Elliott’s chorus is a freckled, downy - cheeked seventeen - year - old named Tom Hocking, who last year followed his father into the chapter. It doesn’t matter to Tom that the majority of chapter members are fifteen to twenty years older than he is. The East York chapter rents a small hall for meetings, which start soon after seven and go on as long as there are four men to take the harmony parts. Members sit in folding chairs facing their chorus director, AÍ Shields. He and his brother, George, who is the chapter president, learned about music from their father, an organist and choirmaster at a city church. When the singers make a mistake AÍ grimaces, waves his arms and signals them to stop. "C’mon, sound that Gee!” he shouts. "Make it go-mg.”

After the chorus singing, George Shields picks a man from each section of the chorus to form a quartet. The foursome, often singing together for the first time, sometimes produces good harmony, but more frequently there are grinding discords. These are acknowledged by sympathetic snickering from the audience who then call on the chapter’s top quartet, the ToneSifters.

The first member of this quartet is Jimmy Waugh, an honest-to-goodness Irish tenor who came to Canada from Belfast after the war and works as a machine operator in a Toronto factory. Next to him is another Irishman, a thin-faced carpenter named Eddie McVeigh, who is lead singer. The quartet is completed by baritone Dick Pooley, a rosy-faced commercial artist and father of three, and Art Cook, a curly-haired salesman, who lullabies his daughter in a rumbling bass.

For that melancholy number, I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen, the four men, all about the same height, stand close together, knees bent slightly and heads inclined as if listening for one another’s notes. They sway from the hips, and, like choirboys on a Christmas card, they raise their heads and open their mouths wide for thé long deep chords. Nobody stars in the quartet: voices blend evenly and hand or foot movements are carried out simultaneously by all four.

The Tone-Sifters also like to clown an act. When they do Ballin’ the Jack, they go through the song’s motions— "Swing your foot way round then bring

it back, now that’s what I call ballin’ the jack.” On the last line tenor Waugh gives his version of a shimmy while the hall rocks with stamps and whistles.

The barbershop spirit has overflowed into the homes where SPEBSQSA wives, who have played second fiddle long enough to like it, have formed the Sweet Adelines. Open to all women who like barbershop, the organization started in the U. S. and spread to Canada where five chapters have been formed. Although female barbershop lacks the resonant quality of male harmony, it accommodates the same four parts in women’s range.

Barbershop’s popularity is also reT fleeted in the entertainment world. As SPEBSQSA quartets become more polished, they are often paid to sing at social gatherings, variety shows and in night clubs. The society permits them to sing for money as long as three members of the quartet live on jobs unrelated to music. Many top quartets have refused full-time professional careers because they prefer to sing for love.

Whether foursomes are professional or not they get plenty of stage experience through the annual barbershop concerts in their home towns. In Toronto, two chapters each hold annual one-night "Parades” at Massey Hall. They import champion SPEBSQSA quartets, and the peak of the program comes when they turn it over to the audience to whoop up the old songs.

Stranded at a Funeral

In spite of its professional ambitions, the concert is often an amateur production, with amateur mistakes. A few years ago, a Toronto chapter quartet, -the Tunetwisters, were taking their bows when the baritone stepped back from the microphone, lost his balance and fell plunk into a pool of water that was part of the set. Red-faced and dripping, he hauled himself out, went up to the microphone and cracked "Just call me 'Guppy.’ ” It was the big moment of the show.

The society encourages chapters to give their talents and the proceeds from their shows to worthy organizations. Two years ago East York chapter donated six hundred dollars—all the money in its treasury—to a cerebral palsy fund. Soon after, the chorus learned it would be competing at the 1954 convention in Washington, D.C., and members had to dig into their own pockets to go.

About this time, the Montreal chapter heard that a Washington airman, in Montreal for his grandfather’s funeral, was stranded with only five dollars when he missed a free return flight in a service plane. They volunteered to take him to Washington with them, and they did, paying his bills.

With SPEBSQSA members singing comes first, although they don’t know whether they sing because they’re happy or are happy because they sing. They get the same pleasant thrill whether they’re bouncing to Cruisin’ Along in My Old Model T or sighing over Tie Me To Your Apron Strings Again. Most barbershop ballads were written around the turn of the century when barbershop harmony and "heart” songs were popular. For this reason, the barbershop repertoire includes many numbers that express a yearning for a girl, a mother, a place or time when everything was happy. These sentiments spill over in tunes such as You Leave a Trail of Broken Hearts, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and When the Maple Leaves Were Falling.

Although the barbershop craze didn’t hit the public and the song writers until late in the nineteenth century, the basic harmony originated much earlier-in a

barbershop. In Shakespeare’s time, barbers doubled as surgeons and their shop was identified by a red-and-white pole topped with a gilt knob. The pole represented the winding of a bandage around an arm, previous to bloodletting; the knob stood for the brass basin used for lathering before shaving. In the days before magazines, waiting customers passed the time strumming stringed instruments provided by the barber. The musicians, who could not play different tunes at the same time, evolved a four-part harmony which other customers could sing.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, the Barber-Surgeons’ Company was disbanded, but the practice of music-while-you-wait clung to barbering. In the New World English settlers brought harmony with them, and barbershops, which sometimes offered the only bathtubs and billiard tables in town, became a meeting place for male residents. In between gatherings of the anti-horse thief association and the volunteer fire brigade, quartets met to perfect their harmonies.

Barbershop was at its peak in the Nineties. Its chords rang through the

years of bell skirts, boaters, bicycles and handlebar mustaches with songs such as When You Were Sweet Sixteen, In The Good Old Summer Time, Goodbye My Lady Love, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, Waiting For the Robert E. Lee and Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay. But in World War I it was drowned by noisier tunes—a trend that continued into the jazzy Twenties. But barbershop was saved from extinction hy a few stubborn individuals like Owen C. Cash, the Tulsa tax attorney who in 1938 determined to revive the sweet old harmo-

nies. Cash’s revival of barbershop was such a sensation that at the third meeting of his singing club—attended by one hundred and fifty men in a Tulsa hotel suite—one of the singers looked out the window and saw a traffic jam below. He didn’t think anything of it until the reporter came to the suite and said he’d asked police outside if there’d been an accident. The police said there hadn’t been an accident; the cars had just stopped. "It’s just some darn fools up there singing,” said one cop.

The reporter’s story in a Tulsa paper was picked up by wire services and in a few weeks SPEBSQSA clubs were springing up in cities all over the U. S.

Although barbershop style remains unchanged, the society has improved many of the melodies sung under the gaslights. Improvements have been printed in sheet music—something unknown to off-the-cuff harmonizers of old. Although there is still room for improvising, quartets and choruses use these arrangements as the basis of their harmony.

One surprising fact to new barbershoppers is that Sweet Adeline—long the favorite of amateur harmonizers —is outlawed from society competitions because she reeks too much of saloons and play-acting drunks. Ten years ago SPEBSQSA banned the song, whereupon Harry Armstrong, the composer, retorted: "Imagine a group that meets in a brewery in New York banning a song because of its connection!” But the society stuck to its stand, and a year ago a writer in SPEBSQSA’s official organ, The Harmonizer, even called Addie "a musical bawd.”

Religious or patriotic songs, which might stir judges’ feelings, are also banned. But outside of these, any number written in the barbershop era is good contest material. Of course, away from the judges, barbershoppers continue to sing Sweet Adeline and the new generation since the war has introduced such modern numbers as Dearie (1950), Down By the Riverside and Melody of Love. They have even invaded the classics for a four-part arrangement of Because.

Cummerbunds and Zany Names

Few of today’s popular hits can be suitably adapted to barbershop. Although it is possible to sing them in four parts, their rhythm, repetitious melodies and reliance on accompaniment—as in the current hit, Shake, Rattle and Roll—rule them out as good barbershop material. Elowever, some modern quartets use the old barbershop chord. When first starting out in Toronto, the Crew Cuts, a foursome now among the top recording and stage artists in the U. S., attended an East York chapter meeting to learn about barbershopping. Luckily, they weren’t interested in joining, because the East Yorkers would have had to inform them that they were practically "crows.” They could manage a few barbershop chords, but they used all types of harmony effects and a "rickity-tick” style that was miles from barbershopping.

The song style of SPEBSQSA quartets may be staid, but in the matter of names, uniforms and stage presence they follow today’s professionals. Outfits of padded jackets, draped pants and cummerbunds, and names such as the Atomic Bums of Minneapolis, hardly recall the singing barbers of the Nineties. Canadian quartets have adopted zany titles such as the Flat Happy Four of Brandon, Man., the Totem Tones of Vancouver, B.C., the Rip Chords of London, Ont., and the Harm and Agony Four of Orillia, Ont.

Like all singers, SPEBSQSA quar-

tets enjoy entertaining audiences, but shows are child’s play compared with the annual international competition. There it would take a death in the family to prevent them from singing. At the 1954 competition in Washington, D.C., Norm Sawyer, the lead singer with Toronto Rhythmaires, was stricken with agonizing stomach pains before the second round of the contest. He got through two numbers, then his fellow singers called a doctor who ordered an operation for kidney stones. A few hours later the Rhythmaires learned they were one of five quartets

chosen for the final round. Sawyer persuaded the doctor to give him pain-killing drugs and, although he was barely conscious of singing, he went into hospital later knowing he was part of the third best barbershop quartet on the continent.

The only Canadians to make the 1955 competitions at Miami Beach, Fla., were the Rhythmaires, the Toronto Townsmen and choruses from East York and Montreal. The East Yorkers sang on the plane to Miami, sang in their hotel rooms and sang on the beaches; in fact, they sang when-

On Miami street corners quartets sang Meet Me in St. Louis—nobody got angry

ever there were four or more men to carry the harmony. It was that way all over Miami Reach, where more than four thousand barbershoppers and their wives had gathered for the convention. Snatches of Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis, or Down Among the Sheltering Palms sounded from restaurants, hotel lobbies and corners of streets —renamed Harmony Lane for the occasion. Unlike most noisy delegates to a convention, barbershoppers drew no criticism from Miami Reach residents, who, if they paid any attention, paused to applaud or request a number.

One hotel set up a woodshed, complete with logs and axe, for quartets to practice harmony. "Woodshedding” is barbershop for off-the-cuff harmonizing—a sort of vocal jam session. The term originated in the days when four men would go to the woodshed to perfect their harmony before presenting it in the parlor.

Rut most barbershoppers did their I harmonizing wherever they felt like it.

In a restaurant two men wearing i SPEBSQSA badges were having lunch when they got into conversation with a third barbershopper at a table across the aisle. The two men said they sang bass and lead in a quartet, whereupon the third excitedly announced he was a baritone. "If we only had a tenor,” said one.

"I’m a tenor,” cried a man leaving a table of six halfway across the room. In a moment, the four decided on Give My Regards to Broadway and were off in a world of harmony.

The serious business of the convention—the judging of quartets and choruses—was going on in the modern white Miami Beach auditorium, set in a park of palms. In their backstage dressing room, the Rhythmaires were getting ready to compete against forty-one quartets in the first round of the competition. All in their twenties, the boys nervously paced the floor, pausing to adjust maroon bow ties and cummer-

bunds or to wipe their foreheads which were wet with sweat in the ninetydegree heat.

"You should have worn an undershirt, Dune,” remarked Ed Morgan, the quartet’s tenor, to blond Duncan Thompson, the bass singer. "You’re going to sweat right through.”

"Naw, he’ll be the only one that’s cool,” snapped the wiry baritone, Gordon Lang.

In another dressing room down the hall, the Toronto Townsmen were also awaiting their call. They were following their tradition of drinking coffee before show time. But this time coffee wasn’t enough. The Townsmen, like the Montreal chorus, didn’t win an honor spot.

The Rhythmaires placed fifth among quartets bowing to the champions, the Four Hearsemen, whose name and morning clothes tie in with the commercial singing they do for an undertaking firm in Amarillo, Texas. Out of ten chorus entries, East York came third behind a champion group from Janesville, Wis., and a chorus from Michigan City, Ind.

By ranking among the top entries, both the Rhythmaires and the East York chorus received one hundred dollars each from a recording company to record their two contest numbers. East York was scheduled to make a record after the evening competition at eleven o’clock. The chorus went directly to the appointed recording spot and then had to wait two hours for the engineers who had been delayed. Dog-tired, they put in the last hour singing on the street outside the building, while cars, buses and pedestrians stopped to listen.

Sitting in a parked car a short distance from the singers, a woman turned to her husband. "They must be barbershoppers,” she said.

The man nodded. "Who else would be sober and still want to sing at this time of the morning.” ir