This piece was published in the Pasadena Star-News on May 7, 2010.
There aren’t many barbershops left anymore. You have to look hard for that red, white and blue barber pole outside a shop that has a couple of chairs inside with old guys sitting in them, stubbornly refusing to enter a co-ed hair salon. The strict segregation of barbershops for men and beauty shops for women is over. A man can walk into a beauty salon with his head held high and get his hair cut by a female. I have
seen a male or two getting a dye job in my salon.
I saw lots of barbershops in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio. I was twelve-years-old the year our town celebrated its sesquicentennial (150 years). Findlay was a great place to grow up and had lots of open space where I was free to roam around on my bicycle with my dog running alongside. The town was short on culture, though, and it wasn’t until the sesquicentennial that I got my first experience with a live musical performance, other than the high school choir. A barbershop quartet sang at the local band shell. Four guys sang in perfect harmony about the girl they love. I was hooked.
This quintessential American music was considered a bit old fashioned even back then. The singers dressed alike in striped shirts and used a lot of hand gestures that were choreographed to accentuate the lyrics. At the end of the songs, they held the last chord in four-part harmony while the crowd held their breath. Finally the chord ended and the audience started to breathe again.
The corny old tunes, like Sweet Adeline,always had a girl at the center of it that the singers were desperately in love with and wanted to walk back home. (In 1945 in Tulsa Oklahoma, a group of women formed their own organization called Sweet Adelines.) Down by the Old Mill Stream was a particular favorite since it was written on the banks of the Blanchard River that ran through Findlay. Written by Tell Taylor, it has been a barbershop standard since 1910.
There is a purity to barbershop quartet singing because they perform with no musical instruments to accompany them. The harmonious, a cappella style, with voices only is very simple concept considering that music today can be created by a computer. A fine barbershop quartet lives and breathes this music and spends many long hours practicing.
I was delighted when I met a woman who was married to a member of a barbeshop quartet (Barbershop Boy meets Sweet Adeline girl) and discovered that the world of barbershop is alive and well in Southern California and throughout the world. I found out that the Barbershop Harmony Society, a mostly volunteer organization, is grooming new talent and that young men are forming barbershop quartets and entering competitions. Soon after I found out where barbershop quartets were performing, I began to attend concerts.
The Masters of Harmony, a men’s chorus in excess of one hundred members in all shapes, sizes and ages, boasts a varied repertoire, ranging from the classics to jazz, patriotic to sacred, with some musical theater pieces adapted for the barbershop chorus style. The numbers are choreographed, with some of the younger guys jumping down from the risers while dancing and singing, moving props around on stage without missing a note. While they maintain their historical roots, many barbershop quartets and choruses use arrangements from pieces ranging from the Beatles to Brahms.
In our electronic age, the innocence and exuberance of a group of men singing about the women they adore in rhyming lyrics is refreshing. Today’s popular music is also about love but has more sexualized lyrics in some songs and downright dirty lyrics in others. Barbershop music describes a time that is lost, but the music is as vital and entertaining as any contemporary musical style.
If you have heard this great American musical art form and want to relive it or perhaps want to introduce it to your children or grandchildren, check online to see if there is a group near you. In Southern California visit https://www.mastersofharmony.org for more information. For the ladies, visit the Sweet Adelines at https://sweetadelines.com.
Kathleen Vallee Stein