Singing Valentine in Unlikely Setting
Four white guys in formal attire showed up in an African American owned New Britain barbershop to deliver a Singing Valentine to the shop owner’s fiancée last week. This was not only a delightful surprise to the recipient, Annette Velez; it was also a highly unusual instance of returning barbershop harmony to its roots.
The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) is the world’s largest all-male singing Society, with 22,000 members across North America. Affiliated men’s and women’s organizations in more than a dozen countries bring the total number of active singers to more than 80,000 worldwide. Through music education, publishing, performance, and outreach, the Society preserves and extends the reach of a uniquely American close-harmony vocal art form whose roots lie in African-American improvisation and European harmony traditions. Founded in 1938 as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A.), the Society now expends $1.3 million annually in support of community and school programs that bring the excitement of vocal music to a new generation of singers.
What is now an overwhelmingly Caucasian global a cappella art form, barbershop harmony literally may owe its origin to slave barbers and their friends instinctively harmonizing. To the extent this can be verified, it places the distinctive barbershop harmonies alongside jazz as music forms emanating in North America from African roots.
While it is difficult to separate legend from fact, much evidence points to the early intertwining of jazz – especially blues and ragtime – with barbershop. A 2001 article in The Harmonizer, the official publication of the Barbershop Harmony Society, focuses on Lynn Abbott’s research that, in 1992, presented “A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony.” Abbott cites reminiscences of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton as well as writings more than a century old to support his case.
In 2015, The Harmonizer published a front-page article titled “The African-American Roots of Barbershop Harmony and Why It Matters.” Based on a 2015 work by renowned barbershop music arranger and historian David Wright, the article cites African-American historian and 1920s leader of the NAACP James Weldon Johnson as defending barbershop from being usurped by white quartets. As was the case with jazz, in our then segregated society, whites dominated barbershop music and excluded people of color.
The Barbershop Harmony Society has recently mounted an intensive campaign to right past wrongs. In mid-2017, it launched a strategic vision of inclusiveness titled “Everyone in Harmony.” Last month, it published “Honoring The Grand Central Red Caps: Excluded in 1941, Embraced Today.” The Red Caps were an African-American barbershop quartet denied membership in the international barbershop society. They have now been given a posthumous lifetime BHS membership. While this may seem an ironic “too little too late” gesture, it is symbolic of the strenuous attempts now underway to reach out to people of color.
None of this history may have been appreciated when the quartet sang at Teeza’s barbershop on North Street last week. However, it was not lost on the singers: Ed Hall, Bill Maine, Harald Sandstrom, and Don Naples. Naples is Treasurer of the Hartford Men in Harmony (HMIH) chorus; (see www.hmih.org), the home base of the “Perpetuity” quartet. He is also a New Britain City Councilman. Sandstrom is a former president of HMIH and former Director of African-American Studies at the University of Hartford.