History and Harmony

Singing competition hits the high notes of an enduring genre

(L-R): Bill Pfieffer, Mike Richard, Randy Hagan, and Charlie Marth, part of the Land of Sky Chorus who will perform in Flat Rock this month.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Barbershop harmony is a quintessentially American musical form. Though its heyday was nearly a century ago, its popularity endures. Today there are at least 30 quartets in the Carolinas District of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Those groups perform far and wide, and there’s also a competitive element. This year’s Fall Festival happens November 11-13 in Flat Rock, and groups from all over the Carolinas will bring their best.

When most people think of barbershop music, they tend to conjure a mental image of four white men wearing matching striped vests and straw skimmers and singing close harmony. But what goes on behind the scenes carries way more nuance. First of all, while barbershop music is always based on four-part harmony, chorus groups are as popular and widespread as quartets. And in the last several decades, women’s singing groups and mixed groups have grown in number. 

While not a fixture at most festivals or breweries, the genre has quietly thrived in Western North Carolina since at least the 1950s. Steve Anderson, local president of the Barbershop Harmony Society, notes that the Asheville chapter has been in existence for over 70 years. “The social aspect of barbershopping, along with a strong sense of teamwork, also adds to the popularity of singing with a barbershop chapter,” he says.

And barbershop’s true cultural roots are often overlooked or forgotten. In fact, says Warren Fuson, the chapter’s VP of judging, “the music itself is 100% out of the African-American musical community of the 1800s.” He notes that jazz greats like Scott Joplin, The Mills Brothers, and Louis Armstrong all sang in barbershop quartets in their pre-fame days. Fuson and his wife created an educational program to correct the record and celebrate the form. Launched in 2019 at NC Central University, their “Barbershop Revival” program brings barbershop harmony back into the Black community.

And among those who are already deeply immersed in barbershop, there’s a lively scene. It’s a welcoming, accessible genre. “The vast majority of our singers have virtually no musical education,” Fuson reveals. He estimates that about half can’t read musical notation.

But they learn by doing, encouraged by their more experienced fellow singers. While the most versatile vocalists switch around, a typical barbershop harmony singer focuses on one of the four vocal parts: lead, tenor, baritone, or bass. The groups hone their skills (and expand their repertoire) by singing “tags,” known formally as codas. 

Tags are typically the musical high point of songs in the barbershop repertoire, and the quartets typically learn new ones in a manner of minutes. “At a convention or contest,” Fuson notes, “you’ll end up in a hallway or stairwell with three other guys, singing tags for an hour or more.” The sharing and learning of tags is one of many ways that barbershop harmony shares roots with other oral traditions like storytelling. 

A great deal of barbershop music comes from popular show tunes and songs from the 1890s to the 1910s. But Fuson emphasizes that barbershopping is a living tradition, and more modern works have become popular parts of the repertoire. You’re likely to hear a contemporary quartet or chorus offer songs by John Denver, Billy Joel, The Beatles, and even Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” arranged for four-part a cappella singing. 

Chorus Director Kati Swinney leads the group, including Steve Anderson, left front.
Photo by Colby Rabon

Because of pandemic-related safety measures, this year’s festival and competition will be different from previous events. But Fuson says his organization is making every effort to present as “normal” a competition as possible while looking after the health and safety of everyone involved. “We would all like to be able to sing together with no masks,” he says, “but you have to be careful.” 

The annual fall festivals — featuring both quartets and larger choruses — are tuneful but competitive. Winning groups earn a highly coveted trophy. “They get to keep it for a year,” Fuson says. “Then, if somebody else wins, they pass it on.” He expects about a dozen quartets will compete this year. “I had to wait until I was 72 years old to win a district quartet contest,” he notes.

It turns out there’s a scientific basis for the feel-good effects of barbershop singing. Steve Anderson says that “in addition to stimulating endorphins, harmony singing enhances the [natural] production of oxytocin, a hormone which powerfully influences a sense of connectedness among people.” 

So while there’s a spirit of competition at barbershop-singing gatherings, it’s primarily about fun and fellowship. “When you’re on stage,” Fuson says, “the vast majority of people in the audience are also singers. And they’re your cheering section.”

Carolinas Barbershop Harmony hosts its 2021 Fall Festival convention and competition Friday, Nov. 12 and Saturday, Nov. 13, at Thomas Auditorium in the Blue Ridge Conference Hall (49 East Campus Drive at Blue Ridge Community College, Flat Rock). For details, see carolinasdistrict.org. 

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