For their big, final research paper, my students have to write an ethnography about a subculture that they are unfamiliar with, a sphere of life that includes shared practices, behaviors, histories, rituals, vocabulary, and/or beliefs. As an outsider, they must explore another world through an insider’s eyes.
This semester, I tried to get someone to study barbershop singers. “Huh? You mean a bunch of guys who sing in a barbershop?” Clearly, it would fit the “unfamiliar” requirement, but no dice, no takers.
If I had to write an ethnography, I would write about the world of barbershop, which I have discovered through my son-in-law to be. “Greenlight,” Chris’s quartet, won the 2018 New England District championship of the Barbershop Harmony Society, an international organization with somewhere around 30,000 members. We were there to see their triumph a year ago, and there last night to see them present the award to this year’s champions. There are lots of old guys, a few younger ones, and a smattering of women singers. You see goofy suits and hambone shtick. Friends and family pack the arena, then hook arms and sway as they sing the ritual closing number together. Spontaneous harmonies break out. Tensions run high in competition, but an overarching sense of community and friendship pervade the room.
Musically, I had my barbershop baptism one day last September. Tessa and Chris, and the baritone from his quartet, stopped by my brother-in-law’s apple farm in New Hampshire, when they invited me to sing a “tag” with them – a classic, splashy, barbershop finale. They taught me my part, then we sang it, right there in the dooryard, surrounded by weekend apple-pickers.
“What was that?!” exclaimed a friend, jaw-dropped open. “I heard way more than four parts going on!”
That, my friend, is called ringing a chord. The gold standard, the goal of the barbershop style is to produce those magical overtones, sounds beyond the four notes being sung. I may never achieve it again, but by some fluke I enjoyed a fleeting, insider moment of that thrill, immersed in a reverberant wave of sound.
My 60th year in 60,000 words
Day 61: 349 words, TOTAL = 9900; 50,100 remaining
Robin Clifford Wood is a writer and writing teacher. She lives in central Maine with her husband and dogs, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys ever-expanding horizons through her grown children and their multi-species families.