Barbershop singing, an all-male, a cappella tradition that began in America at the start of the 20th century, is alive and well in chapters around the world. Thanks to the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing in America, or the Barbershop Harmony Society, there are more than 800 chapters and 34,000 members in the United States carrying on this rich, traditional art form.
VOA's Doug Levine attended a rehearsal by a Washington, D.C., chapter known as the Singing Capital Chorus, and has more on the growing appeal of barbershop harmony.
It's another Monday night, and one-by-one the men file into a makeshift auditorium in the basement of a church in the northwest corner of the city. The rehearsal begins with a few warm-up exercises led by Music Director Bill Colosimo.
He fine-tunes the 30-man chorus that is divided into tenor, bass and baritone voices. He reminds them to breathe, to lift their voices and enunciate each word of the song. The men, he says, like most that sing barbershop, joined the chapter with a passion for singing.
"We are truly an amateur singing organization, and what I'm particularly impressed by, in the Washington Metropolitan area especially, is the variety of occupations that the men have, and the places in the world they've lived and the things they've done," Mr. Colosimo said. "And very few, if any, have formal musical training."
At age 20, Mr. Colosimo's son Anthony is the youngest member of the chorus and one of its most competitive, placing in the top five at two international competitions.
"You get very passionate about it very quickly," Anthony Colosimo said. "It is a style of music that is unique but it bridges a lot of gaps. It bridges a gap between choral music and jazz. It bridges a gap between American music and other forms of Eastern and Western music. It's very cultured despite its upbringing."
Halfway through the rehearsal, Mr. Colosimo turns the directing over to the group's oldest member, 93-year-old Lew Sims, who also sings with his quartet. One of Mr. Sims' fondest memories was singing for American troops stationed in Europe in 1956.
"We sang a fairly standard repertoire, so we got better and better," he said. "By the time we were there, the third week, we were mighty good. When we went over we were warned that the army men would call out, 'Bring on the girls.' That never happened, even once. We were that good."
Another longtime member is former chapter president Dee Paris. Mr. Paris explains how some informal harmonizing inspired the very first barbershop chapter.
"In April 1938, when Owen C. Cash, who was a tax attorney from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was in Kansas City on business. And he met an old friend of his at the Muehlebock Hotel, and he said, 'Let's do some singing,' he said. "They found the elevator operator could sing, and they sent the bellboy down through the lobby. [The bellboy said] 'Call for barbershop bass. Call for barbershop bass.' They found a fourth man and Owen said, 'When I get back to Tulsa, I'm going to start a [barbershop] club. And that's just what he did."
Ever wonder what a Voice of America employee does when he or she retires? If you're Paul Modic and Fred Coffey, Jr., the answer is barbershop singing. Modic joined The Singing Capital Chorus 16 years ago after serving as VOA's Director of Programs.
"I particularly enjoy the comradarie and the fact that it's people from all different walks of life brought together just by a love of singing, a cappella singing," he said. "When the chapter was founded, there was nothing off-color and no raucous humor. It's all just for the love of singing."
Fred Coffey, Jr., former Chief of VOA's Indonesian Service and Far East Division, says one of the biggest challenges in barbershop singing is taking a standard arrangement and making it new again.
"Some of our music is quite complex, not simple," he said. "Some of it is nostalgic music that's been sung in this country for 120 years or more. It's mixed. Some of it is quite complicated, and some of it is material you can learn in a day or so. But the music, the rhythm and the chords are traditional barbershop."
During its 58-year history, The Singing Capital Chorus has performed at President Truman's Inauguration Gala, at the White House for President and Mrs. Eisenhower, with the National Symphony Orchestra, and at local veterans hospitals, retirement homes and competitions.
Internationally, barbershop singing chapters have sprung up in Australia, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, South Africa and other parts of the world.