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Social Meanings And Barbershop Harmony

{mosimage}In my previous article I wrote about glee clubs in 19th century America, hoping to suggest connections between glee club performance practices and today’s collegiate a cappella.  It was a story centered on issues of class primarily, but also European influence.  In this essay, I’d like to highlight America’s own genre of close harmony, barbershop quartet singing.  The story I’d like to tell here focuses on the “social meanings” of barbershop—what does it mean to sing this kind of music, both historically and socially? In American popular culture, barbershop has been cast as an almost exclusively white tradition with supposed origins in English barber shops of the 16th through 18th centuries (a construction promoted in early histories by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA, now Barbershop Harmony Society), or otherwise an outgrowth of European or classical music.  However, recent musicological research has shown that African-American singers played a significant role in its development from the very beginning.  Regardless of its racial(ized) origins, this music has become an important vehicle for nostalgia and ideas of authenticity, which sometimes ignore barbershop’s roots, as ethnomusicologist Gage Averill writes, “as a product of—and not an alternative to—commercial music trends of its era.”

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“The Old Familiar Choruses”: A Peek Into 19th Century Glee Clubs

Contemporary collegiate a cappella developed from earlier styles and genres present in the United States: the major ones are classical choral music, barbershop and vernacular close harmony, and popular music. In this article I’d like to explore the first one by peeking into the world of college singing in the 1800s. As you read, see if you can spot some aspects of these historical ensembles that still ring true in your a cappella experience today. In histories of (Western/choral) music, American music tends to be an afterthought. But it has its own story, which emphasizes music education and amateur music making at least as early as the “singing schools” of colonial music educator and publisher William Billings. The founding of societies dedicated to choral singing is also important, the most famous of which is the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston (1815).

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Collegiate A Cappella: The Singer, the Group, and Campus Musical Economics

{mosimage}In my previous article I wrote about two stylistic goals of collegiate a cappella: emulation (the recreation of an instrumental-and-vocal recording in a vocal-only medium) and originality (the customization of songs in ways that depart in varying degrees from the original). In this second part, I’d like to consider some of the larger, non-musical purposes those goals serve.

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Collegiate A Cappella: Emulation and Originality

{mosimage}As an ethnomusicologist, music historians are sometimes surprised that I study not some non-Western musical tradition, but one right here at home: collegiate a cappella. Sometimes we take for granted the music that surrounds us or that we practice every day. My job, then, is in part to find new or insightful ways to think about the music we already know and love. This article (in two parts) is one such attempt. Heres the proposition: a pair of concepts, emulation and originality, organize the contemporary collegiate a cappella aesthetic. A cappella groups strive to capture the essence of a popular recording, yet at the same time infuse their music with something new, something original. In this first part, Ill mention a few of the techniques used to achieve these two stylistic goals. Then, next time, Ill ask what purposes those goals serve.