Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators

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barbershop: unaccompanied group singing of popular songs usually marked by highly conventionalized close harmony. From the old custom of men in barbershops forming quartets for impromptu singing of sentimental songs. (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
COURTESY OF MARCSMEN
  • Courtesy of Marcsmen
“Are these people 92 or something?” my 8-year-old daughter whispers in my ear. We’re at the chorus hall of the University United Methodist Church on De Zavala, in front of the mammoth Friends in Harmony chorus. Ages range from 7 to over 90, but the average age seems to be 54+. Due to hurricane season, this is a slow day at the office—only about 80 singers show up.

“We’re the fastest growing chorus in the whole of the [Barbershop Harmony] Society,” says Artie Dolt, who is not 92. “I’ll be 75 this year, and I have tuxedos older than you.” He’s the dean of San Antonio barbershoppers, and a powerhouse with the enthusiasm and energy of a 16-year-old. He’s been directing and singing in choruses for 57 years, winning a quartet Mid-Atlantic district championship in 1966 with New York/New Jersey’s Hallmarks. He formed Friends in Harmony in 2013, starting with a group of 19 singers who, like Dolt, had left barbershop because “it stopped being fun.”

“When I was singing with other organizations, we’d get through a line in the whole three hours practice,” said Ed Garland, the president of Friends in Harmony. “It was all about perfection, and it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Still, Friends in Harmony manage to stop me in my tracks with a thunderous, chilling rendition of “If the Lord Be Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise” and an equally powerful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, which they will sing (as they’ve done before) in two upcoming Spurs games: November 7 against the Los Angeles Clippers and a televised game against the Lakers on March 3. They’ve already booked the 2500-seat Laurie Auditorium for a Spring Spectacular on May 19, featuring Instant Classic (2015 International Quartet Champions, from Indianapolis) and GQ, a popular Sweet Adeline (female) quartet from Baltimore. “They do some eight-part numbers together that are just incredible,” said Dolt. “We’ve already been told busloads of barbershoppers from Houston (both men and women) are coming for this.”

Even though Friends in Harmony have participated in some regional competitions (“just to have fun and hear the other quartets and choruses”), the words “contest” and competition” are not part of the group’s vocabulary.

“You come [to Friends in Harmony] because you enjoy singing and camaraderie,” said Dolt. “For some, this is their life. They literally live for this chorus.”

One of them is 68-year-old Larry Schaef, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December.

“Ninety-five percent of the people are dead in the first six months,” said Schaef, who is now at stage 3. “But there is a five percent that aren’t, and that’s me. This chorus keeps me alive. I didn’t feel good today, but as soon as I heard that first chord, that put life in me.”

The Marcsmen are the antithesis of Friends in Harmony. Last year, they came in second in the Southwestern District competition, only beaten by Dallas’ 12-time International Champions Vocal Majority, widely regarded as the heavyweight barbershop chorus in the world. Marcsmen won the district in 2012 and, a year later, came in 13th in the world at the International contest, the best finish by a group of less than 29 men on stage in the history of the Barbershop Harmony Society. This time, with Vocal Majority on the horizon, the Marscmen will try to put between 30 and 40 singers onstage, but their expectations change.

“We’re hoping for a wild card,” said Marcsmen co-founder Manny Lopez. “If we score 80 or more points, which we usually do, we can be one of the 10 wild cards to join the 30 district winners.”

“Marcsmen are what we call a state-of-the-art barbershop chorus,” said Brian Lynch, PR man for the Barbershop Harmony Society. “Just reaching the Internationals is like being in the NCAA finals. Their achievements are huge. They’re in a pretty elite group.”

The key element of barbershop is that the melody (the lead) is carried by the second highest voice. Unlike the standard chorus, gospel or hymnal church music (SATB, or soprano, alto, tenor and bass), where the soprano carries the melody, in barbershop the melody is carried by the second highest voice (the second tenor). But before singing, Marcsmen spend close to 30 minutes preparing physically and mentally for the three hours of practice ahead. In what they call “focus sessions,” they get the body warmed up, loosening neck and torso, and then concentrating on melody, intervals, sound production, alignment, breathing and other exercises meant to help each singer find his best voice… before the actual singing.

“A lot of people think singing doesn’t involve the body, but it really does,” said Lopez, one of the former Texas State San Marcos students who formed the group in 2007 and also the director of San Antonio Chordsmen, another barbershop chorus. Three members of Marcsmen (bass Wallace Stanley, lead Peter Cunningham and baritone Manny Lopez) joined Stanley’s wife Diane (a soprano in Opera San Antonio) to form Southern Stride, a mixed quartet that, at the time of this writing, ranks number one in the country and is expecting an invitation to Germany’s BinG! (Barbershop in Germany) Festival in April.
“We don’t want to get too excited, but we’re crossing our fingers,” said Stanley. Both choruses and quartets compete in district and International competitions, the men governed by the Barbershop Harmony Society and the women by Sweet Adelines International, the latter formed in 1945.

But, besides their love for four-part harmonies, both independent organizations share a tumultuous racial past that’s evident anytime one stands in front of a barbershop quartet or chorus: the whiteness of it all, an irrelevant fact (no one would demand “diversity” out of a mariachi orchestra or a hip-hop band) if we didn’t know the African American origins of barbershop.

“We are owning our heritage, trying to rectify those errors and making sure [racial bans] will not happen in the future,” said Lynch.

In a 1992 essay called “Play that Barber Shop Chord: A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop,” historian Lynn Abbott wrote that “the contemporary image of barbershop harmony is couched in a romanticized perception of the ‘Gay Nineties,’ with dapper, white, middle-American barbers and their patrons posed next to barber poles in attitudes of harmonizing,” explaining that the period’s mainstream literature seldom reinforces that image, while early African-American literature was “shot through with references to barbershop singing.”

“Not many years ago, singing as an amusement prevailed above all others,” the black publication New York Age wrote on November 24, 1888. “At these meetings of friends, as soon as the small games were exhausted, the proposition to sing was gladly accepted and nature’s musical instrument filled the place with pleasing harmonies … the gentlemen would unite and for hours make the night melodious with their tuneful voices.”

Vaudevillian Billy McClain once said that, in the late 1880s, “about every four dark faces you met was a quartet.” But African-Americans were barred from theaters and concert halls, so those meetings took place on the street, barbershops or on people’s homes. Gradually, white barbershoppers adopted (and adapted) the sound to what is known today as barbershop singing, and white historians often offered a whitewashed version of the music’s history. By the time the Barbershop Harmony Society was established in 1938 (originally, and impractically, titled Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA), the membership was all white. How did it happen?

“Two words: Jim Crow,” Valerie Clowes told the Current, speaking from Toronto. She’s the daughter of Lana Clowes, the Canadian singer of Afro descent who, in 1963, had to leave the Sweet Adelines and join the rival Harmony Incorporated, which had been formed in 1958 as a protest to Sweet Adeline’s whites-only policy.

When the all-black, all-male, Harlem-based Grand Central Red Caps quartet won the New York district competition in 1941, they were denied participation in the International finals. “Relative colored quartets competing St. Louis,” wrote SPEBSQSA (from now on BHS for clarity) founder O. C. Cash. in a telegram sent to the New York chapter, “Board of Directors decided some time ago such procedure would be embarrassing and ruled it out. None has competed in the South and West. Best regards.”

The civil rights movement helped correct the wrongs in Barbershop, and in 1962 the BHS lifted the ban on African-American membership (Sweet Adelines would do the same in 1966) and, in 1970, banned the use of minstrel performances (white singers with black painted faces). The BHS’ “Everyone in Harmony” plan of today lists amongst its goals the sharing of the barbershop gift “with young and old, with people of every color and every background,” and plans a posthumous recognition to the Grand Central Red Caps.
COURTESY OF ALAMO METRO
  • Courtesy of Alamo Metro
Most notably, in 2016, the all-female Sweet Adelines International did what was unthinkable not too many years ago: to give a lifetime membership to Lana Clowes (the black Canadian singer who, in 1962, faced expulsion from SAI due to her race) and to celebrate the Adelines’ establishment of a Diversity Task Force, meant to “build bridges with potential singers, regardless of race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender expression or physical abilities.”

“While we cannot change the past, today we dedicate ourselves to being an example of real change and hope in our world,” Sweet Adelines president Paula Davis said in the ceremony, fighting back tears. “Today, we will begin to be a living example of what it means to harmonize the world.”

“That messy, painful past, is here to teach us, not haunt us,” said Valerie Clowes in accepting the award on behalf of her mother. It was a moving, heartfelt moment, and even Harmony Incorporated acknowledged it.
“We held our heads high knowing that we stood on the right side of this issue for many, many decades,” said Christina Llewellen, International President of Harmony Incorporated. “But we were mostly glad and proud of Sweet Adelines for taking a really brave step, which probably opened them up to quite a bit of criticism.”

In San Antonio, it’s obvious to me that doors are wide open for anyone who wants to sing barbershop, but to see a reflection of the city demographics on the risers will take some time.

“In my chorus of 120-130 men I have one black man,” said Friends in Harmony’s Dolt in early October. “However, within the last 30 days I’ve gone to visit some of the black churches on the Eastside with the idea to get them to hear us so we’re more inclusive and we embrace more people into the hobby.” When asked about which African-American churches he’s been talking with, Dolt hesitated. “We’re in the VERY early stages of trying to establish a relationship with these folks. My first goal is to get the opportunity to sing at one of their Sunday services. We need exposure first, then we can try to embrace those interested in our organization.”

One of such services showed a willingness to give it a try.

“Our guys love to sing and I think a small minority of them would like to sing [with a mostly white barbershop chorus],” Hugh Hawkins, director of the men’s chorus at the Macedonia Baptist Church, told the Current. “But as of today, we haven’t been offered that invitation.”

Lack of exposure is another key reason why we don’t see more black faces on the risers.

“I hadn’t heard anything about barbershopping in SA until I got invited [by a co-worker] two years ago,” Tim Davenport, the sole African-American member of Friends in Harmony, told the Current. “And most black churches I know sing with instruments, not a capella.” Hawkins agrees.

“It’s their version of our singing and we don’t hear anything about it, they keep it quiet,” said Hawkins. “The only time I hear from [barbershop singers] is on TV or something, we’re not at all exposed to it. But even though what we do is gospel, I could put together a [barbershop] group like that in a second. We can diversify.”

There is no doubt both the BHS and SAI have made tremendous progress in terms of race, and I have no suspicion whatsoever about barbershop’s openness to all; these men and women are all about the music. But no matter how many good intentions and real achievements, there is one aspect of barbershop that brings us back to its checkered past — a good chunk of its repertoire.

“That desire to change and rectify mistakes of the past is true for the majority of leadership and a lot of the membership,” said Valerie Clowes about the Sweet Adelines, speaking from her home in Toronto, “until one has to face the fact that their favorite song is obscenely racist. A lot of those songs from that era talk about how great the South was, which was true only if you were white and had money.”

One of the early barbershop “hits” was “Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield,” a slave song which included lyrics like “O some tell me that a nigger won’t steal/But I’ve seen a nigger in my cornfield” (later changed to “Some folks say that a rebel can’t steal/But I found twenty in my corn-field”). Another example is “Mississippi Mud,” which was recorded, among others, by Ray Charles, even though the “When the people beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud” line was changed from the now-politically incorrect “When the ‘darkies’ beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud” original. I asked Lynch whether BHS competitors still sing these songs, even if the song versions are sanitized.

“It’s a great question, and one that doesn’t have a direct, simple answer to it either,” said Lynch. “As you can well imagine, there is sensitivity involved in singing songs from an era in which people did not enjoy equal rights. It’s a fine line between celebrating the music for its own purpose and acknowledging the culture in which it grew up. Even now as we’re looking at our expanded efforts towards inclusion and diversity in our organization, these debates are going on every day in both our leadership and membership.” I press him: is the BHS still using these songs in competition? Lynch pauses and thinks.

“I understand and trust that you’re not trying to trap me in a statement, but I would say for the most part no, [those songs are no longer used]. We have sufficient awareness of those cases, so no, we would not do that.”

I ask Valerie Clowes if these discussions on whether or not to continue singing offensive (even if sanitized) Dixie songs are the equivalent of the Confederate monument/flag debate.

“Yeah … Exactly,” she says.

For their district competition in Dallas on October 6-7, SA’s Marcsmen won’t have to deal with that problem. They will sing Robert Rund’s “Tomorrow is Promised to No One” and Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” while Friends in Harmony will stay home doing what they do best: harmonizing and having fun.

“For those who want perfection, there’s the Marcsmen; for those who want to have fun, there’s us,” said Dolt. “Don’t get me wrong, [the Marcsmen] are phenomenal, but it’s not what we do. If every note isn’t perfect, if everything isn’t in perfect balance, that’s not going to affect world peace. What will affect world peace is my relationship with each member of the chorus. That’s why we’re called Friends in Harmony, and that’s why I’m aggressively trying to embrace a very inclusive element in our chorus, and the chorus is supporting me 100 percent. That’s what we want and that’s what we are going to do.”


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