Barbershop Singing

The following history was generously written by Charles Buck ’69 and Robert Birge ’68 for inclusion in The Twentieth Century Project, the most complete compilation of Whiffenpoof history available, by Richard “Dog” Gould ’68.  Visit www.thetwentiethcenturyproject.com to purchase the two-volume set.

It is no surprise that close-harmony singing was the well-spring of the Whiffenpoofs’ earliest musical output. At a deeper level, however, it is important to understand how the group might have actually performed in the days before World War I, and why they might have found sufficient enjoyment in singing together to go to the trouble of founding a group that would carry their vision into the future. James L McClelland, in Of, By and For the People: A History of Barbershop Harmony, describes the popular music milieu shortly after the turn of the 20th century:

When one wanted to enjoy music, he had to provide it for himself. He, therefore, learned to play an instrument or was content to sing. It was natural for four men, all lovers of harmony, to gather and produce some self-satisfying chords. In the days before financed school bands, music teachers for every grade and a standard of living by which practically anyone with initiative can afford some kind of music lessons, the musically inclined often learned by rote, rather than note. ‘Faking,’ the ability to sing or play by ear, often without any technical knowledge, was common among professional as well as amateur musicians.Therefore, men developed a naturalness for the use of the ‘ear.’ It was not difficult for four good woodshedders to ‘hear’ their parts, as it was not difficult for a banjoist to accompany a ‘combo’ or a barber to accompany himself on a guitar.

How then does barbershop actually ‘work’? As an aural rather than a written style, barbershop is based on a simple and logical structure permitting four separate parts to combine in a coherent whole. Bartholomew comments:

Male quartet singing is a peculiarly American phenomenon. In Europe until the advent of American male quartets, as in England with its fine tradition of madrigal and later glee club singers, singing was ‘out of the book.’ I recall, for example, one summer day in Spreewald, an agricultural region north of Berlin irrigated by a network of canals. A rowboat containing four German students floated past and when it came into view I discovered that each one had his song book in front of him as he was carefully singing from the notes. Such a thing could scarcely happen in the United States. I recall also at Christmas time, 1910, when a quartet which had sung together on the Yale Glee Club as undergraduates met, partly by happenstance and partly by previous planning [the members of the quartet were: Barty, Jim Howard 09, Carl Lohmann 10, and Bill Cushing 08]. In a quiet corner of a Paris restaurant, after dinner, we ventured to put our heads together and began harmonizing. It caused a sensation. Other diners listened with rapt attention and applauded enthusiastically; the proprietor offered us free drinks – on the house – and the impromptu concert continued.

The ‘faking’ referenced in McClelland’s text is not limited to barbershop singing, but is a technique found in other American aural traditions, such as bluegrass singing. In barbershop of the kind performed by the early Whiffenpoofs, it reached a sophisticated form that permitted variation each time a song was sung.

In the barbershop structure, each part fulfills a well-defined function, listed here in the logical order that the ensemble would be built, beginning with the melody:

Melody – in the ‘lead,’ or second tenor part

Bass Line – in the second bass, generally in root position

Descant – in the first tenor, often paralleling the lead

Baritone – in the first bass, filling in the missing harmony note

To this quartet, a ‘rover,’ an individual with a freer improvisatory role, was commonly added. The importance of the rover becomes even more striking when we consider the motivation the original Whiffenpoof group gave for meeting at Mory’s as a group of five, rather than four singers. Carl Lohmann provides a vital clue to the need for the added member:

Our quartet having plumbed the depths of four-part harmony decided to move on to the fivepart variety. . .

Howard’s own description of the 1909 Whiffenpoofs singing at Mory’s – although difficult to imagine today – gives a tantalizing view of how this practice might actually have come to life (See also the Hogans, v1.1908):

Many who enjoyed listening took to dropping in for a meal or glass while we five poured forth our souls in unrehearsed and often spontaneously-altered harmony. . .

Lohmann’s gorgeous bass. . . Minnigerode’s effortless tenor. . . and the inventive genius of Pomeroy, whose accurate ear and extraordinary range enabled him to fill in a fifth part in any passage which might be enriched by it, were priceless assets.

It is likely, however, that the first group’s ability to sing in five parts, born out of the close musical collaboration that these remarkable musicians discuss freely, did not continue in succeeding groups. While Minnigerode, Lohmann, and Pomeroy sang a second year in the Whiffs, graduating in 1910, it seems unlikely that the 1911 group, featuring the bibulous Edgar Montillion (Monty) Woolley, reached such heights.