Gage Averill, Four Parts, No Waiting: A Social History of American Barbershop Harmony
(Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003)
This relatively short (181 pages, not counting the supplementary material) book represents a massive contribution to scholarship on barbershop singing, as is only to be expected of a professor of Ethnomusicology and Chair of the Music Department of New York University. Gage Averill combines musicology, history and sociology to trace the evolution of barbershopping from the family choruses of the mid-1830s to the many groups involved in the early recording industry to the modern incarnation of barberhop singing in the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA), the Sweet Adelines and Harmony, Inc. Despite technical discourse on swipes, tags and the frequencies of notes, Four Parts, No Waiting is very accessible, even for someone with a limited knowledge of the science behind music.
Before reading Four Parts, No Waiting, my contact with barbershopping was limited. Once a month, I attend a meeting next door to the practice session of the Elm City Echoes, our local barbershop chorus (an affiliate of Harmony, Inc.). Several of my friends are members, and one even works for Harmony, Inc. It never occurred to me that there was anything controversial about barbershop singing. Certainly some people like it and some don't, as anyone could tell from the reactions of the other people at my meeting to our monthly concert, but that was that for controversy.
Talk about naïve! One of the central facts of barbershopping, at least in this book, is a disagreement over whether barbershopping is solely representative of authentic white American 19th-century folk music, or whether it owes style, repertoire, etc., to African-American close-harmony. This point is important enough that it apparently formed part of the SPEBSQSA's mythos, to the extent that Blacks were excluded from membership in that organization until relatively recently (1963), and that Harmony, Inc., was formed in 1959 by chapters of the Sweet Adelines who broke away over the issue of being allowed to accept Black members. (Hopeful note: the quartet featured on the SPEBSQSA homepage has a Black member.)
Naïve to the end, I don't see why the colour of the singer should be of any moment at all, but it obviously was to the barbershopping world, at least in the past. Pity.
At any rate, Four Parts, No Waiting studies this and other aspects of barbershop singing fairly dispassionately. Averill has obviously done a lot of research, including interviewing barbershoppers and attending SPEBSQSA conventions, as witness the extensive endnotes to each chapter. The glossary, bibliography and index are useful and seem fairly complete. At least, I was able to find what I wanted to, though of course someone else may not be as lucky.
The companion CD includes twenty-two cuts chosen not for their quality (some are from very old recordings and the sound quality is horrible) but to illustrate points in the book. The notes on each selection are quite clear, referring back to the appropriate pages in the text and, in several cases, even giving the time reference for examples of particular techniques.
Four Parts, No Waiting also includes a number of black and white illustrations, ranging from Norman Rockwell paintings to pictures from SPEBSQSA conventions, and examples of music.
All in all, this intriguing but occasionally technical work should appeal to, and broaden the horizons of, those interested in American folk music.
[Faith J. Cormier]
For more information on barbershopping, try the Web sites of the three largest organizations in North America:
The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop
Quartet Singing in America
The Sweet Adelines
Gage Averill has a Web presence as well. NYU maintains two pages on him here and here. The latter one even has pictures of him. You can find detailed information on one of his other books, A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti, here.