All In Harmony

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Old-time Western melodrama and Barbershop singing meet in Salinas this Saturday as the Monterey Cypressaires present their annual show at the Ariel Theatre.  “Don’t Fence Me In,” narrated by acclaimed cowboy poet Mick Vernon, tells the story of Sioux City Sue, in mortal peril from the evil villain Badman Boyle, and the hero Ragtime Cowboy Joe’s attempts to save her from his clutches. With the story punctuated by fun songs of the old west and piano rags from Bob Blade, a.k.a. Professor Gordon, “Don’t Fence Me In” promises to be an entertaining show for all ages.

Nobody is really sure of the exact origins of Barbershop, but most historians will agree that by the mid-1800s, the characteristic four-part harmonies could be heard in public places such as barbershops and street corners (it was also sometimes referred to as “curbstone harmony,”) where people would gather to sing the popular songs of the day.  The minstrel shows of the time would often feature quartets of singers performing songs in this style, and as these shows were replaced by vaudeville, the tradition of close harmony singing remained.  In 1910, the first written use of the term “Barbershop” to describe the style of music appeared, with the publication of the song “Play That Barbershop Chord.”

In a traditional Barbershop quartet, the lead singer sings the melody, and the tenor harmonizes above him.  The bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes and the baritone sings a harmony which may be above or below the melody line.  The four voices produce musical chords, and it is the baritone’s part which gives the chords the characteristic Barbershop sound, that of dominant seventh chords.  All harmonies are improvised, and the skill of singing these harmonies is known as “woodshedding” by Barbershop singers.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Barbershop music is when the harmonics of the four singers’ notes reinforce each other to produce audible undertones or overtones, which can actually sound like a fifth voice singing.  Barbershop singers call this “ringing a chord.”

In 1938, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA) was formed in Tulsa, OK.  Today it is the world’s largest all-male singing society, and boasts over 32,000 members in over 800 chapters in the US and Canada with affiliated organizations all over the world.  A similar organization, the Sweet Adelines, exists for all-female quartets singing Barbershop style. 

The Cypressaires, Monterey County’s chapter of SPEBSQSA, was formed in 1955 by Captain Paul Spangler, a Navy surgeon.  The group’s first show was in 1956, at Carmel’s Sunset Theater. Today, the Cypressaires boasts 27 members aged from 28 to 92 years of age.  The women’s group, the Bay Belles, has 15 members and both groups are directed by Kirsten Thompson, a local musician and choral director.  The groups sing the songs from the heyday of Barbershop, such as “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Coney Island Baby,” sentimental, often comic songs which recapture the mood of days gone by.  “Don’t Fence Me In” is the Cypressaires’ 45th annual show, and a portion of the proceeds will be going to support school music education in the local area. 

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, November 20, 2003

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