A cappella television show, a cappella movie, a cappella books, albums, YouTube... we're officially an industry. A small one, but with many people making a full time career performing and/or creating behind the scenes. Amazing.
I can't help but try to put this in some perspective, although perhaps it's all too early.
I'm reminded of something my grandmother told me about my great grandfather Clarence Shearin (traditional spelling): "...and he sang lead in a barbershop quartet."
This is a guy who at age 5 opened the Oregon Trail with his family, legs dangling out of the back of a covered wagon, taking a trip that at that age likely seemed not at all unusual. I'm not sure why, but they took a left at the end of the road and headed down into Northern California, triggering generations of "go bears" instead of "go ducks."
His family homesteaded, happily, but he wanted nothing to do with the farming/ranching life so he went to Cal, got an accounting degree, and headed back up to the Redding/Chico area as a land/tax surveyor.
He had two daughters, one my grandmother, one my great aunt and godmother, named for the legendary Australian operatic soprano Nellie Melba, who he had an opportunity to see once. So, he clearly loved vocal music.
And that's all I know.
What would he think about all this attention given to a cappella? The fact that it's a career choice now? Perhaps it wouldn't have been that surprising to him, since he was doing the same thing.
Wait: did I just equate barbershop with contemporary a cappella? Yup. Let's take a trip back in time, over a hundred years ago, before SPEBSQSA, and tell me what you'd call the following style of music:
Guys get together socially, and jam. One guy would start by singing the melody and others would improvise harmony parts around him. No sheet music, all by ear. They sing the popular songs of the day, sometimes for others, but often just themselves for fun. Sometimes they'd all sing the lyrics in 4 part harmony, sometimes they'd have a bass line under the melody and the background voices would imitate a small combo (mini concert band or some such, where the bass equals the tuba, etc).
And this wasn't just a white guy thing. In fact, the tradition started in African American circles then made its way throughout American culture (like so much popular music has).
Come to think of it, this all sounds a lot like doo wop, with guys convening on a streetcorner (or in a stairwell, if they want a good "echo") singing songs they wrote, or songs they heard, sometimes all singing lyrics, sometimes replicating instrumental textures...
Wait: am I basically saying that barbershop a hundred years ago and doo wop fifty years ago were the same as contemporary a cappella today?
Yes, yes I am. Exactly the same thing.
Barbershop never became an industry and predated recording, and doo woppers who were signed to labels had producers add instruments to their vocal tracks so the music remains, just not in its original a cappella form. But it was all-vocal pop music. Lots of covers, some originals. Sound familiar?
In fact, you can trace this all the way back to the Renaissance. Secular madrigals. All the proclamations of love and repeated dying, dying, dying in your lovers arms with fountains spurting... might as well be an Usher track.
Popular music nowadays relies heavily on rhythm, so we use vocal percussion. We have readily available sheet music, and electronic pitch pipes, and melodyne, but in the end those are just tools. The music is the music. People singing pop music. Same as it ever was.
So what would Clarence think? He'd probably quit his job and start touring. Why not? He'd crossed the country once (maybe that's why I have a travel bug?).
By the way, I don't think they called it barbershop music back then. Or doo wop. We're calling our music contemporary a cappella now, but considering how incredibly stupid the names "barbershop" and "doo wop" are, I'll bet it'll have some horrid name like "boots and cats."
And perhaps a century from now, our kids will be telling their grandkids that we made a career "bootzncatzing."
I apologize in advance.