Classic Traditions

On July 4, 2015 the Barbershop Harmony Society’s annual International Convention and Competition came to a close with Instant Classic winning the contest and becoming the 2015 International Quartet Champions. At first glance Instant Classic doesn’t seem like the popular conception of a barbershop quartet: no striped jackets or straw hats, and their competition songs aren’t classic Tin Pan Alley songs such as “Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie.” Instead we get a young quartet who wears sharp suits and takes the stage singing less familiar and more contemporary repertoire. Instant Classic’s six competition songs drew upon a wide swath of source material that ranged from 1920s musical theater and 1950s television theme songs to 1990s R&B. Although this may seem contrary to the barbershop tradition, it’s actually firmly within the historical tradition of barbershop quartet singing; which has made a common practice of appropriating and covering popular songs from wherever and whenever they can be found.

Instant Classic, the 2015 International Quartet Champions

Instant Classic, the 2015 International Quartet Champions performing “This Could Be The Start of Something Big” during the quarterfinal round of the 2015 competition.

In addition to performing arrangements of Steve Allen’s Tonight Show theme song, “This Could Be The Start of Something Big,” and Eric Benét and Tamia’s 1999 hit, “Spend My Life With You,” Instant Classic consistently drew from musical theater by singing songs from Whoopee! (1928), The Secret Garden (1991), Mack and Mabel (1974), and Love Never Dies (2010). While this may seem odd, musical theater has a long relationship with barbershop by providing source material for many arrangements, and in the case of the The Music Man, musical theater has been one of the most powerful forces to define the popular image of the barbershop quartet.

Even though a Broadway show may have contributed to the popular conception of a barbershop quartet, barbershop harmony remains strongly associated with Tin Pan Alley and the early 1900s; so how does a quartet performing a music theater ballad from 2010 or an R&B track from 1999 fit in the historical tradition of barbershop? What about the connection between barbershop and the Tin Pan Alley era, and what about Instant Classic’s more contemporary pop arrangements?

The truth is that the associations between Tin Pan Alley and barbershop quartets was something re-imagined in the late 1930s and afterward during the early days of the Barbershop Revival.* These early days of the Barbershop Harmony Society (then known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQSA) drew upon the popular songs of the Tin Pan Alley era of 1890–1920 primarily because these songs provided the opportunities for quartet arrangements that would allow for lots of ringing four-note chords (also known as barbershop 7th chords or dominant 7th chords).

*“Barbershop Revival” is the term used to describe the renewed interest in quartet singing that occurred in the late 1930s. Quartet singing by that time had ceased to be as popular as it was in the 1900s and 1910s (even though quartets certainly still existed and performed). The Barbershop Revival movement gave birth to the annual competitions held by the Barbershop Harmony Society and other barbershop organizations such as Sweet Adelines International and the movement continues to the present day. For more information, read Gage Averill’s Four Parts No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony. Throughout the book, Averill explains the historical development of the style from the late 19th century into today.

It’s well documented that barbershop (created and practiced primarily by African Americans) existed in America prior to the explosion of Tin Pan Alley in the first decade of the 20th century. Quartet singing was part of performance genres such as vaudeville and minstrel shows, and it was a daily part of many people’s musical recreation years before and during the rise of the Tin Pan Alley song factories. In fact, quartet singers simply grabbed the new hit tunes and started singing them; in other words, Tin Pan Alley was one of the first mass appropriations of popular music by quartet singers. This appropriation was even taken to a whole new level by the Barbershop Harmony Society through a wholesale adoption of Tin Pan Alley songs and redefining the style in the common terms of Tin Pan Alley.

So today, when a young quartet sings popular songs, this is not much different than what’s been done by quartet singers back in 1965, 1935, or even 1905; which is the adoption of popular music into a new medium, the barbershop quartet. There has always been a drive for preservation among Barbershop Revival singers, but when we deny ourselves the right to bring new songs into the repertoire, we are denying a historical tradition of barbershop. Instant Classic’s practice of selecting songs from the gamut of popular music and performing them in contest is nothing new at all, and in reality they’re preserving one of the most important traditions of the barbershop quartet.

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