If it weren’t for barbershop quartets, I probably wouldn’t know the second or third verses of most popular songs.
That’s because not only do barbershop singers know how to harmonize like nobody’s business, they also enunciate clearly each word, which makes both listening and remembering much easier.
As one might guess, we paid close attention to the lyrics during the Holiday Serenade at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Malphrus Road in Bluffton on Dec. 2. It helped that the programs they handed out included lyrics to all the carols so we could sing along. And might I say, what a lovely treat to hear Christmas carols sung in perfect and whimsical harmony by our own Hilton Head Island Lighthouse Chorus (www.hhibarbershoppers.org), a chapter within the Carolinas District of the Barbershop Harmony Society.
My neighbor Dennis Miller sings bass in his own quartet within the Hilton Head chapter, and is busy making the rounds of assisted living facilities, offices, and churches at this time of year. Anyone who hasn’t booked a barbershop serenade — or attended a concert of barbershop chorus singers — is missing out on a very special, sometimes forgotten art in American vocal music history.
Barbershop singing began in the early 1800’s in American towns, before there was easy access to any kind of public entertainment. Men would gather around barbershops – literally, it was a hangout back then – and sing harmony to amuse themselves and impress the ladies. The art of harmonizing has tentacles reaching out to urban areas where city dwellers gathered to make music without instruments. Remember the vocals of the Drifters, Temptations, the Four Seasons, and so on? All have their roots in the barbershop style of harmonizing.
And while they entertained themselves, America most certainly benefited from a whole industry and genre of inspiring sounds that permeate churches, holidays, and Americana. And speaking of holidays, if you miss out on a Christmas serenade, the next big one is definitely Valentine’s Day.
“Every year, we are booked all day long on Valentine’s Day. We charge a small fee for two songs, a rose and a card, delivered to your sweetheart’s door. And the songs are as hokie as you could possibly want. ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ is always one of them,” said Dennis.
To be truthful, I can only hear “Sweetheart” in my head off-key, in Alfalfa’s trembling, cracking voice as he sings to Darla in the “Our Gang” comedies with bubbles flying out of his mouth. Maybe husband Johnny D will surprise me with a little hokie barbershop serenade this year, and I’ll finally hear how ‘Sweetheart’ is supposed to be sung.
Barbershop choruses donate portions of their proceeds to benefit area music non profit group s such as high school programs that need rebuilding. Currently, much of the Lighthouse Chorus proceeds are going toward rebuilding their own membership. Sadly, the area chapter of harmonizers has dwindled from about forty singers ten years ago to sixteen or so presently, as interest in the genre has waned. Participating in competitions is also part of the annual schedule of events for members, an added perk of traveling that they enjoy.
The Hilton Head chapter encourages anyone interested in participating or listening to them rehearse or simply learning more about how to become a chorus singer (you only need to love to sing, the program says), to attend any of its weekly rehearsals at 7 p.m. Tuesday nights at the Cypress Clubhouse in Hilton Head Plantation, 20 Ladyslipper Lane.
You can call for more information at (843) 290-9517 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
And learn those second and third verses.