Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

Barbershoppers do it in harmony — and a capella.

For more than a century, people have harmonized their voices without the accompaniment of instruments in a style of music known as barbershop.

Southern Maryland is no stranger to barbershop music. With many quartets and choruses in the area, it’s no surprise to see a young couple being serenaded on Valentine’s Day or a group of residents of a nursing center listening to Christmas carols from men in tuxedos and Santa hats.

At 89, John Buchanan is in his 10th year with Southern Mix, a barbershop chorus that meets weekly at the College of Southern Maryland’s La Plata campus.

Buchanan said he’s always enjoyed singing.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that human beings are the only animal God made who can intentionally and willingly join their voices in harmony,” he said.

Close-harmony singing began in England and made its way to North America in the 19th century, “where it evolved with musical influence of African-American spirituals and men improvising in bars, parlors and barbershops,” according to information provided by the Barbershop Harmony Society.

The style unofficially took the title barbershop in 1910 with the publication of the song, “Mr. Jefferson Lord, Play That Barbershop Chord.” It was not unusual to see four men on a street corner or “in a barber’s shop, harmonizing a capella,” according to the society’s history on barbershop.

Buchanan, of Accokeek, gathered three of his chorus friends together to show off some of the harmonies by singing “My Wild Irish Rose” prior to the chorus starting a rehearsal last month.

That tune is one of a dozen songs known as “polecats,” which Southern Mix director Paul Douglass of Lusby said are traditional songs that are short and fairly easy to learn. Consequently, he said, virtually every barbershopper has those in his repertoire. He said the composition of the polecats encourages quartet action.

There are about 20 members of Southern Mix. While most of the men are older, there are a few youngbloods, such as 19-year-old Julian Chase of Hollywood.

Chase took a barbershop class at CSM. The chorus there is in cooperation with the college’s fine arts department.

Members of the chorus say there aren’t always a lot of students, but it’s fun when there are.

Chase said though all the other guys are older, he has made some bonds with them. “I’ve been having a lot of fun,” he said.

A woman’s touch

Ellen Bertelsen of Lusby said a young person getting involved with barbershop pleases her. It means they share “the love of close harmonies,” she said.

Bertelsen is involved with a woman’s barbershop group, though when the group is composed of women, it’s technically known as a Sweet Adelines quartet.

Sweet Adelines were formed in 1945, according to the Barbershop Harmony Society.

“Men invented barbershop, and women perfected it,” Bertelsen said. She currently performs with a women’s group called the Song Birds.

Just like a barbershop quartet, the women’s groups sing in four-part harmonies, but the chords are usually adjusted to fit women’s voices.

Bertelsen said her group has six members from all around Southern Maryland, and one member from Frederick, who get together on weekends to sing.

She said a quartet is a quartet for a reason: There are four parts and four people. When a group has six, as hers does, she said it is a “very large quartet.”

She said she has been singing and or directing barbershop style music since 1976. “It’s a very unique American sound,” she said of the tight harmonies.

Bertelsen recalled a group she sang with once was preparing to sing for a local telethon. The act before her group was a band, and it took about 10 minutes to clear the stage.

She said someone with the telethon approached her and asked if the group needed time to set up. Bertelsen took a pitch pipe out of her pocket, held it up and said, “We travel light.”

Recalling the memory, Bertelsen said with a chuckle, “A pocket-sized pitch pipe. That’s it.”

Multiple voices, one sound

In four-part harmony singing, the lead typically takes the melody; the tenor harmonizes above the lead; the bass tackles the low harmonies; then there is the baritone.

“Baritone fits in all the missing chords,” Southern Mix member Carl Wennberg of La Plata said.

A style and a bond that stand the test of time

It’s the camaraderie and the tight harmonies that keeps the barbershop style around, said Tommy Ray Chedester, president of the Southern Maryland Sound chorus based in Leonardtown.

Using a quartet as an example, Chedester said when everything comes together, it’s all in unison: the expressions on the singers’ faces, their body language. “It’s incredible,” he said.

When four or more barbershoppers are in the same place and represent each of the four parts needed, chances are, according to local barbershoppers, song will break out.

“I’ll sing anywhere at any time,” David Reyno of Owings said.

Chedester, of Oakville, said when he sings by himself, it’s OK, but when he has three people filling in the other parts, “it’s magical.”

Reyno is part of Fathers and Sons Quartet, a barbershop group made up of exactly what its name suggests. Reyno’s son, Jeremy, and father/son pair John and Jason Leavitt fill out the combo.

David Reyno said when the group gets together and is scheduled to sing just three or four songs, the rest of his group knows by now that “there is 100 percent chance that will change. You don’t just want to sing two or three songs.”

He said the group started in the early 2000s when he and his son were involved in their church’s choir.

The two of them and father-and-son duo Fran and Brad Miller got together. They began singing for friends here and there, and the quartet officially was formed.

Reyno was an active member of the Southern Maryland Sound barbershop group at the time. That group was and still is involved with singing valentines.

Throughout the years, Brad Miller dropped out of the quartet, and Jason Leavitt filled in as the lead part. Later on, Fran Miller moved away, leaving a baritone spot open. Leavitt’s father, John, is a baritone, so the group asked him to join.

“Daggone if we didn’t have all four parts and actually fathers and sons again,” David Reyno said.

Funds raised through singing valentines or any other events where Fathers and Sons performs goes directly to Calvert Hospice. The quartet has raised $12,000 in eight years.

Putting down the bass, picking up a harmony

Chedester joined Southern Maryland Sound nine years ago after seeing a sign in Leonardtown advertising barbershop singing. Having grown up around music and playing in several Southern rock bands, Chedester was no stranger to singing. He followed his wife’s suggestion to join the group and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s changed the way I look at music,” he said. “Anytime four people can stand in front of a crowd of 300 and sing — that applause — imagine the thrill.”

Chedester said he loves the sound of the close harmonies, but if he is going to sit down and listen to music it will be rock ‘n’ roll every time. He said his favorite barbershop song to sing is Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” altered considerably to match the style.

Chedester said singing valentines are fun because of the reactions from the recipients.

“When you walk in and hear the song ‘Oh, Hugh, What Have You Done?,’ it’s a feeling you can’t describe,” he said.

Reyno and the Fathers and Sons, as well as the two choruses, have performed for small groups and larger crowds — such as at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf before and during Southern Maryland Blue Crabs baseball games.

Reyno said his quartet has performed at other venues, too, such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Prince George’s Stadium in Bowie, home of the Bowie Baysox. The quartet recorded “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in various arrangements for the Baysox to use during the seventh-inning stretch.

The choruses are associated with the Barbershop Harmony Society. There are 25,000 members in the United States and Canada, according to the society’s website.

Reyno also is a member of the society and a currently inactive member of Southern Maryland Sound.

Sweet Adelines have their own society called Sweet Adelines International. There are members on five continents, according to its website.

Quartets and choruses for both men and women get together for competitions and conventions often.

Barbershoppers have singing in common but outside of singing do a variety of different things.

“In every walk of life there is somebody in barbershop,” Chedester said.

Chedester said he doesn’t see barbershop music becoming extinct, as long as there are enough voices to fill four parts.

Bertelsen said anyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well.

“People who have a genuine desire to learn will do so,” she said.