Marines.Together We Served

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Four-Part Harmony

              Hobbies are wonderful diversions. One of my favorite hobbies is singing in the uniquely American musical style of Barbershop music. The official organization that carries the banner for this wonderful music form is endowed with a rather long and cumbersome name. The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc., is usually referred to by its acronym, SPEBSQSA.

So why such a long acronym? It was intended originally to be a spoof, lampooning the presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal policies. There were an excessive number of government agencies (figured at 100+) which the FDR administration established, creating a veritable “alphabet soup” of national and federal organizations, all identified mostly by their acronym. However, the use of SPEBSQSA was never intended to be the official title, nor was it considered acceptable to attempt to pronounce the acronym. The name was changed in 2004 to the Barbershop Harmony Society. The ladies of Barbershop singing have their own organization known as the Sweet Adelines International (SAI).

The Society, as it is more commonly known today, was formed in 1938 by Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “As of 2012, just under 25,000 men in the United States and Canada are members of this organization whose focus is on “a cappella” music. The international headquarters was in Kenosha, Wisconsin for fifty years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007.”

         The musical term, a cappella, means, “In the manner of the church.” More specifically, it refers to singing without the use of instrumental accompaniment. “Voices only” best describes a cappella singing. This is where four-part harmony comes in.

         One of the unique aspects of Barbershop music is the appeal to the average man. Well trained virtuoso voices are not required. Instead, the four parts that make up the classic Barbershop sound are well within the range of the average guy.

Typically, when people hear someone refer to Barbershop music they immediately think of a quartet. That’s okay because at it’s very core is the harmonic sound of the four parts. At its inception, Barbershop singing consisted of a First Tenor, Second Tenor, Baritone, and Bass. Later it was changed to Tenor, Lead, Baritone, and Bass.

The range of Barbershop harmony is very manageable for most men. The bass is not so very low, nor is the tenor particularly high as you find in Gospel music, for instance. It is the blending of these four parts and what we in the Society call, “Ringing a Chord,” that thrills barbershop singers and aficionados alike. Usually this chord comes at the end of a Barbershop song that “rings” when the four parts hit their notes just right. The perfect blend of the four voices creates an overtone, or a fifth note, that can be heard as well as felt. It is truly magical!

I first fell in love with Barbershop music when I heard the Buffalo Bills, the 1950 International Barbershop Quartet Champions, sing in the 1962 musical, The Music Man. I loved the harmony and thought it would be loads of fun to sing like that.

It was not until early in the 1980s that I actually had a chance to get involved. I soon discovered that the Society had these men’s choruses all over the United States. I was pastoring my first church in Fresno, California in the early 80s. My parents decided to buy my wife and me tickets to the annual show put on by the Fresno Gold Note Chorus. I only had a few months to sing with them since I was about to be commissioned as a Navy chaplain, and I had no idea where I would be in the coming years.

In 1988 I was stationed at the Naval Communications Station in Stockton, California where I joined the Stockton Portsmen chorus. I had a blast! So many fun and wonderful guys. After a couple of years there I was sent to Post-Graduate School with a follow-on tour in Naval Station Rota, Spain. It was in Spain that I formed a singing ensemble of men and women in the Barbershop style. Once I settled back in the U.S. in the mid-90s, I joined the newly formed group, the Golden Valley Chorus (GVC). I sang with them as a lead until I was called up for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). While assigned to our counter-terrorism base in Djibouti, Africa, I formed a quartet which was made up of Special Forces guys. In the brief time we had, I taught them the “Barbershop style” of music, or at least enough so they learned to sing a classic, “My Wild Irish Rose.” I was gone for two years, and once I returned home I simply did not have the time to rejoin the GVC until last summer.

I had not realized how much I enjoyed Barbershop singing, and also how much I had missed it during those eleven years I was away from it all.

Glad to be back and to be around some of the finest men I’ve had the pleasure to know. It’s great ringing chords again.

If you’d like to check us out, we meet every Tuesday night at 7:00 in the Mancini Hall, 718 Tuolumne Street, Modesto, California. For questions, call or email Stratt Riggs at, 209-524-6139.

 Come on out and ring a chord with us! You’ll love it!


Unknown said...

Nice read there Mr. Roots. For all those that read this and care to hear what it's like on the 14th, schedule a Singing Valentine. You can order one in most areas of the US by going to or the GVC website (

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