Is it time for a Barbershop comeback?

Originally posted on The Independent Blog

It is the way of the world that everything fashionable will become passé. And then, as night follows day, it will come back into fashion – first ironically, as sported by inaccessible hipsters, then in earnest by the majority. Then it will be unfashionable again, and the whole process repeats until the end of time.

Disco is a prime example: it was as popular as the plague in the mid-70s, considered the height of naffness in the 80s, and then –thanks in part to a remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ – it was back, complete with flares, platforms, and unnecessary covers of ‘It’s Raining Men’ by tired Spice Girls.

With this in mind, I want to wind the clock back to the end of the 19th century, when barbershop singing was fast becoming the latest craze. Everyone was talking about it and doing it, and by the early 1900s it was everywhere – well, everywhere in the US, us Brits were still listening to music-hall and the such-like, but you get the picture.

By 1920 the wheel of fashion had turned and barbershop singing was as dead as boot-cut jeans and curtains. Depression era America had no need for cheerful harmony groups, and troupes of singers had to join the breadline like the rest of the country.

Then, true to form, it got a boost thanks to retro-chic. Just when everything seemed doomed for the medium, close harmony singing’s own inaccessible hipster Owen C. Cash founded the Barbershop Harmony Society as means of preserving the art, and singers and fans crept back out of hiding to join the growing chorus.

Fast-forward to present day and you will notice there is a distinct lack of barbershop music in the hit parade. There was a Christmas number one by The Flying Pickets in 1983, and there are the obligatory harmonies thrown in by JLS and One Direction, but it’s not really barbershop in the truest sense. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the art has died out in the mainstream.

However, if you take a closer look, the corpse of close-harmony singing may just be twitching a bit. On the periphery of popular culture there are signs of life.

As is traditional for anything of any popularity whatsoever, Barbershop singing has made occasional appearances in The Simpsons. Homer forms The B Sharps, a quartet whose career rise is so monumental it can only be compared to that of The Beatles, and in another episode the whole town bursts into harmony singing about a monorail – a direct reference to The Music Man, a musical that heavily features a barbershop quartet.

More recently, we can see regular appearances from harmony groups in Family Guy and Scrubs. In both instances the music ticks all of the relevant barbershop boxes – it’s a cappella, it uses cycles of fifths, etc. – and is given a very prominent place in the show, which is great for the resurrection of the art: very little for the serious aficionados to complain about.

The purpose, though, doesn’t seem entirely honourable. More often than not these shows tend to ridicule the medium, rather than to rejoice in it. In Scrubs, for example, it’s the downtrodden Ted who leads the quartet, and it’s just another weapon to beat him with: not only is he a disappointingly pathetic man, he’s also a barbershop singer – what a loser!

Can this be good for barbershop or is it just popular media figures kicking an ailing tradition while it’s down?

My belief (slightly biased, being as I am a close-harmony singer myself) is this is the beginning of a Lazarus-like return. Nothing attracts inaccessible hipsters (the Jesus Christ of this analogy) like something being considered the height of naffness. May I bring your attention to thick-rimmed NHS glasses: early 2000s you couldn’t give a pair away, now Jay-Z has them, and every grinning T4 presenter (male and female) looks like Deirdre Barlow.

Barbershop isn’t cool. At least it isn’t cool now. And that could be its secret weapon. Give it time and in a year or so the streets of Hoxton will see a lot more candy-stripes and straw boaters, the synthesisers will be put away, and the air will be thick with the sound of close-harmony singing. And before you know it, you’ll all want to be those losers from Scrubs, like I do.
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 07 August 2012 18:31 )

Barbershop Harmony Society announces new CEO

The Barbershop Harmony Society is pleased to announce the appointment of its new CEO/Executive Director. Twenty-three-year member Martin “Marty” Monson was named to the post after an extensive search process conducted by the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Board of Directors and the search firm Genovese, Vanderhoof & Associates. Nearly 60 candidates, many with extensive musical and association management experience, were considered for the position.  

Marty is currently president and owner of Visual Communication Advisors, a strategic planning consulting firm. Prior to that, he was vice president of business development for Glowpoint, a telecommunications and teleconferencing company.  

“I am honored by the opportunity to serve the Barbershop Harmony Society in this capacity,” Marty said. “I’m eager to get started.” Society staff was informed of the decision on the morning of Friday, July 20. They will meet with the new CEO on Tuesday, July 24.  

Marty has been president of the Hilltop, Minn. Chapter (LOL) of the Barbershop Harmony Society for the past five years. His leadership has helped to significantly grow membership and transform the Hilltop chapter (and its Great Northern Union chorus) into one of the Society’s most dynamic organizations. An article about this transformation appears in the November/December 2009 issue of The Harmonizer magazine.  

“Marty brings unbridled passion and enthusiasm to this role,” said Alan Lamson, president of the Barbershop Harmony Society and interim CEO. “His ideas for the future, his successes with Great Northern Union, as well as his business successes, gave the Board the confidence that he was the right person at the right time for the Barbershop Harmony Society. We are also excited by his ability to work with staff, committees, the Board and the membership to move us forward.”  

“The search committee was looking for a strong blend of skills, experiences, energy and vision as demonstrated in business and barbershop,” added Shannon Elswick, Society executive vice president. “Marty’s success at the chapter level is undeniable, his energy is boundless, and he brings a vision that we believe will engage current members and attract new ones. We also believe Marty will use the great resources we have as an organization to broaden and enhance overall awareness of barbershop harmony.”  

Marty, his wife, Amy, and their children, Stefany and Luke, will relocate to Nashville, Tenn. in the near future. The newly appointed CEO will meet with the Operations Team and deliver the keynote address at Harmony University on Sunday, July 29. He will officially begin his duties at the Society’s Nashville headquarters on August 13.
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 24 July 2012 16:47 )

Ringmasters Featured on PRI's The World

Originally posted on PRI's The World website (click to listen to this radio story)
Soundclip available here >>

The latest winner of the Barbershop Harmony Society’s quartet competition is Swedish.

Ringmasters, from Sweden, is the first quartet from outside North America to win the Society’s gold medal. Barbershop singing is a quintessentially American music and the Swedish singers spent years learning and refining their technique.

Ringmasters won the competition in Portland, Oregon earlier this month at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s International convention.

The editor of The Harmonizer magazine, Lorin May, called their victory “unprecedented”. Listen to the broadcast >>
Last Updated ( Monday, 23 July 2012 19:07 )

Barbershopper Lowell Boyer Featured in The Morning Sun

Originally posted at The Morning Sun

Photo: Lowell Boyer (Center) sings with the Midstatesmen's Chorus at the Alma Middle School."

Lowell Boyer knows a lot about trends in music. That's because he's sung his way through most of them.

Now 94 years old, Boyer, of Alma, has reached a milestone: He has been a member of the Midstatesmen Chorus, a local barbershop group, for 65 years, and is believed to be one of the few in the country who can make that claim. The group, which is the Gratiot County Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, is dedicating its annual show in September to him, with the theme of "Boy Oh Boyer."

Lowell Boyer has been in Midstatesman Chorus for 65 years. "I feel so honored, I'm just doing what I like to do," he said. Boyer will be singing in the Sept 22 show at the Alma High School Auditorium, and will be accompanied in one quartet by his son Roger.

"We asked Lowell to go through his song library, and give us a list of the songs that he has done over the years that he would like to hear again," said Chuck Moerdyk, director of the chorus. "He's gonna sing with at least two quartets in the show, possibly three," Moerdyk said.

Moerdyk has known Boyer for about 20 years. "He still sings a good strong bass," he said. "He's an inspiration. We always tell people that singing is something you can do all your life, and we can point to Lowell, as 'Here's the living proof.'"

In his 65 years with the group, Boyer has missed only one of the annual shows, when he had to take his wife Bernice to Wisconsin. Still, he points out, he was active in the group the rest of that year, and also sang in a barbershop group in Florida "so I count that." Boyer will be 95 in December. Born and raised in Ithaca, he sang his first solo in 1936 at his graduation ceremony at Ithaca. The song was "When the Bell on the Lighthouse Rings." His first church solo was in 1937, when he sang "In the Garden" at the Methodist Church in Ithaca. That song, it turns out, was his brother Kenneth's favorite song, and when Kenneth passed away in 2008, Boyer sang it at his funeral. Just one example of how music has played a significant role at all stages of his life. Boyer joined the Midstatesmen Chorus in 1947, inspired by Hollis Delosh, a family friend who was already in the group. The chorus had formed just the year before. He remembers that Impure Airs was his first quartet, which he sang in along with three guys he knew from school in Ithaca, when he sang in Glee Club with them. Boyer doesn't read music, and he said his wife Bernice would help him learn the music. The couple shared a love for music, as she played the piano and was in Sweet Adelines. Bernice passed away in 2006.

They were together for 70 years, he says, starting from the day his best friend introduced them in 1936. They were married in 1939 and had two children, Roger, now of Berkley, near Detroit, and Judith, who lives in Georgia. They moved to Alma in 1952. After 18 years with a lumber company in Alma, Boyer focused his career on carpentry and building homes, retiring at age 62. He found that once he started with barbershop music, it was simply something he enjoyed. "I like the harmony. You have to learn your own part too.." "And the fellowship. You get into something like that, you meet so many nice people. Everybody that ever came in that I knew, they gave something to the chapter."

"There's nobody else that's been here as a long as a I have. In fact, there's maybe only about a half a dozen in the whole organization, that have been there for 65 years." He also sings in a barbershop quartet in Zephryhills, Fla. He was part of the chapter when it had its first show in 1984. Boyer isn't sure what to attribute his long life to, but notes that his mother lived to be 85, his father was 87, and an aunt died at age 93. "It could be in the genes, but maybe there's a reason for it. Maybe I've done things right, or maybe there's something I've got to do yet," he said.

He likes to keep busy. "I just get out and do something instead of just staying home. In the house, it's just the four walls, you know." He plays golf at least once a week. When asked what he usually shoots on the golf course, he was quick to say "Terrible."

"I don't swing very good, but I have fun doing it, Boyer said. "I do my own yard work, I cook when I feel like it, I'm not a very good cook, but I survive on it."

Although he grew up with music of a different era, Boyer said he liked Elvis Presley and the Beatles when they came along. "I used to like some of the rock and roll, when you could understand the singing. Elvis Presley and different people like that, The Beatles, I could understand their words," he said. "But it seems like what the singing nowadays, they're singing a half dozen words and mostly noise. I don't really appreciate it, but I think, 'It's just a sign of the times.' You go through different phases. "I've got to understand what they're singing about. I always feel that if you're singing something, you're telling a story, and it should come out in your singing." For him, that is part of the beauty of barbershop harmony, a style of music he's been proud to sing for six decades.

"Funny thing" he says with a smile, "My dad was a barber."
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 25 July 2012 15:33 )
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