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Old Songs Still the Best Songs for These Old-Timers at Heart

July 1, 1986

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ They’re nothing but nostalgic pictures now, the fellows who used to gather in that club of the common man, the neighborhood barbershop, and sing joyous harmony with shaving soap foaming around their mouths.

But the old songs about sweethearts and tender memories, and the ring of men’s four-part, close harmony without instrumental accompaniment, are among the most enduring of American musical traditions.

That sound has drawn more than 9,000 male amateur vocalists here this week for the annual meeting of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc.

″Barbershop harmony doesn’t lend itself to many modern songs. Songs that lend themselves more are mostly from the early 1900s ... because of their simple melodies,″ says Robb Ollett, the society’s communications director. ″The simpler the melody, the easier it is to harmonize. We also have very simple thoughts - love and the girl next door.″

Barbershoppers, who number nearly 40,000 in 800 chapters in the United States and Canada, hark back through their music to a time when ″barbershops were like corner pool halls, a place to hang out,″ says Bob McAteer, who happens to be a Pocatello, Idaho, barber.

″It’s a gentlemen’s organization. The camaraderie in barbershop singing is the best I’ve ever been involved in,″ McAteer says. ″If you happen to sing lead and you’re in a group of strangers who need a lead, they’ll grab you.″

Nearly 50 years ago, a Tulsa, Okla., tax lawyer named Owen Cash wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter urging his friends to preserve barbershop crooning as ″the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some way supervised or directed″ by the government.

That invitation in 1938 attracted 26 men to a songfest in the Tulsa Club’s roof garden and formed the basis of what is now the largest men’s singing organization in the nation.

Most society members, Ollett says, are over 45 or in their mid-20s, as sons accompany fathers to chapter sings.

Bring together any four members of the society and they’ll find common ground performing such old favorites as ″My Wild Irish Rose,″ ″Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider,″ ″Sweet and Lovely″ and ″Keep America Singing.″

Get them going late at night and you may hear some ribald lyrics to ″Minnie the Mermaid.″ But, Ollett says, off-color songs are rare exceptions in the family activity.

″Basically, we’re rated G. If Bambi blushes, we’re in trouble,″ he says.

At the end of this week’s competition, judges will have selected one champion from among 50 of the nation’s top quartets and one from the 16 best choruses.

Judging is based on sound, interpretation, arrangement and stage presence. Those categories include how well lead, tenor, baritone and bass voices are blended, which depends in part on the careful matching of vowel pronunciation.

Performers can get extra points for embellishments at the end of musical phrases, well-executed tempo changes and overtones - a hard-to-achieve ringing effect when a chord is hit just right. Unison or solo singing can be penalized.

Most barbershoppers are not professional musicians and it’s not unusual to find members who cannot read music, says judge Andy Dill, although serious quartets often seek out coaches and take voice lessons.

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