By Chad Putka

PutkaThe culture of barbershop music is in peril. Many readers may be puzzled by the notion of any kind of modern barbershop culture, let alone one that’s seen better days, but trust me, it’s out there.

Today, about 30,000 people across the world make up the men’s barbershop community alone, including representation in New Zealand, Sweden, Great Britain, Japan, and many other countries, and even more women sing barbershop music than men do. But as the men and women who participate in barbershop music-making have gotten older and begun to die off, barbershop music organizations have begun to make recruitment of new and particularly young “barbershoppers” a top priority.

One job that some barbershoppers feel is related to this recruitment work is the responsibility to preserve the barbershop style in its purest form. As the early Barbershop Harmony Society grew, preservation of its musical style quickly became one of its chief goals. But what exactly is barbershop? What isn’t it?

The codification of barbershop is in some ways helpful and in some ways limiting. Some feel that these restrictions are necessary for barbershop’s perceived purity to remain strong, while others feel that the barbershop style must make musical changes in hopes of attracting young adults. As in any kind of artistic culture, there is a seemingly never-ending battle between the traditionalists who adhere to the rules and the young bucks who prefer to bend and break them. Perhaps a little history is in order.

Barbershop music began in the African American community around the 1890s. Young black men and boys could be found informally singing in quartets and harmonizing popular songs of the day. Soon, vaudeville got wind of this potential showpiece, and the barbershop quartet became a not-so-vaguely racist feature of the variety show. Eventually, however, the barbershop fad faded, and it was not until decades later that it really saw resurgence.

O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall, two businessmen from Tulsa, met on a business trip to Kansas City in 1938. They got to talking fondly about the music of their childhood, and reminiscing about the pre-war innocence for which they yearned. They had the idea of starting a club where like-minded men could gather to harmonize and chat about the old times. When the two got back to Tulsa, they organized a meeting on the rooftop of a hotel, inviting friends and coworkers to spend an afternoon singing. Twenty-six men attended. Poking fun at the New Deal’s “Alphabet Agencies”, they called their new organization “The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing In America,” or SPEBSQSA (pronounced “spehb-skwuh”). In the next few years, chapters began popping up all over the country as SPEBSQSA grew beyond what Cash and Hall had ever imagined.

Since that time, barbershop music has been important to American popular culture to varying degrees, but barbershop does not exist in a bubble, and some stylistic elements have changed. Barbershop arrangers are influenced heavily by vocal jazz, the African American spiritual, and other kinds of vocal and instrumental music, sometimes reaching outside the prescribed palette of barbershop chords to spice up their arrangements. More modern popular songs such as “Eight Days a Week” by The Beatles, “Desperado” by The Eagles, and “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys are appearing on the barbershop contest stage, their melodies re-harmonized to fit expectations of the barbershop style. Arranging embellishments are getting wilder and wilder as dramatic endings to songs are getting higher and higher.

These trends worry the traditionalists, who tend to place the ideal of preservation above all else, asking, “What would O.C. Cash think of the state of our Society today?” Arrangements of songs given the barbershop treatment other than those popular in the 1930s and before make these old-timers shake their heads and thoughtfully stroke their mustaches. Of course, most barbershoppers alive today aren’t old enough to really remember the 1930s, but the rose-colored ideal exists in their minds nonetheless.

What these people forget is that the black quartets of the late 1800s who originated the style were more interested in having fun, trying new things, and harmonizing the songs they knew than they were concerned with rules of what was and was not allowed. The traditionalist ideal of barbershop as pure and definite is often based on a misunderstanding (or at least a misframing) of the music’s history. Admittedly, these people don’t tend to see style change as inherently connected to the decline of barbershop singing, but it’s about time they woke up and smelled the coffee. Their greatest musical love is in crisis! Doesn’t clinging to a false past seem a little petty compared to preparing for a brighter future in this context?

Then we have the boat-rockers, the more experimental barbershoppers who are not afraid of more modern dissonances every now and then. They tend to be more formally trained in music, leading them to look down on their more traditional brothers in song. Many of them see barbershop as something that could be updated, fearing that unless barbershop music does something big to keep up with the times, it may die away. They think, “We can’t change the fact that young people just won’t ‘get’ more traditional barbershop music, but we can change our music to be more like theirs!”

But the free-thinkers forget that teenagers are really good at detecting insincerity. They would rather see the old guys get genuinely excited about something than be pandered to. Beyond that, singing a song by The Beatles or even Michael Jackson does not speak to this generation in the way that the old guys think it will. As one self-proclaimed traditionalist arranger once said (not without a little sass), “The college quartets I know like to sing ‘Coney Island Baby’,” a barbershop song so iconic of the style it was once parodied on Family Guy. Barbershoppers generally misunderstand young people and youth culture, assuming that they have to change the very things that make their music attractive and exotic to the younger crowd.

It is true that barbershop music is in peril, but getting stricter about the rules won’t do any good unless there are people under the age of 70 interested in singing the music. On the other hand, potential new barbershoppers will be more impressed by friendly, honest members and good singing than by a few jazz chords. So leave morality out of the argument and write music that is fun to sing. Some deviations from the rules won’t delete the past, nor will it change the things that barbershoppers love about their art. The really central elements to the barbershop style will stand the test of time not because they are strictly enforced but because they are genuinely appealing and are the things that attracted barbershoppers in the first place. So, what would O.C. Cash think of today’s Society? He’d probably just want to do some singing.

Chad Putka is a vocalist from Worthington, Ohio, who enjoys performing a wide range of styles, from 19th century romantic fare to 1970s pop. Putka’s first and greatest love, however, is barbershop music. Someday, he hopes to study this uniquely American culture and art form as a professor of musicology, and is already teaching others as an instructor in Oberlin’s Experimental College program.

As a performer, Chad loves to sing in choirs, solo performance, and in quartets. He is studying with Gerald Crawford in preparation for a voice recital this spring and sings regularly with the Columbus-based Alliance of Greater Central Ohio, a barbershop chorus that recently placed 8th in international rankings. He is also a long-time member, soloist, arranger, and Official Liaison and Tour Manager with the Obertones, Oberlin’s all-male contemporary a cappella group. His own group, Three Dudes and a Guy, is preparing for competition in April, hoping to qualify for this summer’s Harmony Foundation Collegiate Barbershop Quartet Competition in Portland, Oregon.

Chad will complete a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Studies with a minor in Anthropology in May. He has been named one of ten Rubin Fellows who will participate in Oberlin’s Rubin Institute for Musical Criticism in January.

Published on January 3, 2012