Barbershop Singing in San Antonio Fights The Music’s Racist Past, Embraces Its African American Creators

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In San Antonio, it’s obvious to me that doors are wide open for anyone who wants to sing barbershop, but to see a reflection of the city demographics on the risers will take some time.

“In my chorus of 120-130 men I have one black man,” said Friends in Harmony’s Dolt in early October. “However, within the last 30 days I’ve gone to visit some of the black churches on the Eastside with the idea to get them to hear us so we’re more inclusive and we embrace more people into the hobby.” When asked about which African-American churches he’s been talking with, Dolt hesitated. “We’re in the VERY early stages of trying to establish a relationship with these folks. My first goal is to get the opportunity to sing at one of their Sunday services. We need exposure first, then we can try to embrace those interested in our organization.”

One of such services showed a willingness to give it a try.

“Our guys love to sing and I think a small minority of them would like to sing [with a mostly white barbershop chorus],” Hugh Hawkins, director of the men’s chorus at the Macedonia Baptist Church, told the Current. “But as of today, we haven’t been offered that invitation.”

Lack of exposure is another key reason why we don’t see more black faces on the risers.

“I hadn’t heard anything about barbershopping in SA until I got invited [by a co-worker] two years ago,” Tim Davenport, the sole African-American member of Friends in Harmony, told the Current. “And most black churches I know sing with instruments, not a capella.” Hawkins agrees.

“It’s their version of our singing and we don’t hear anything about it, they keep it quiet,” said Hawkins. “The only time I hear from [barbershop singers] is on TV or something, we’re not at all exposed to it. But even though what we do is gospel, I could put together a [barbershop] group like that in a second. We can diversify.”

There is no doubt both the BHS and SAI have made tremendous progress in terms of race, and I have no suspicion whatsoever about barbershop’s openness to all; these men and women are all about the music. But no matter how many good intentions and real achievements, there is one aspect of barbershop that brings us back to its checkered past — a good chunk of its repertoire.

“That desire to change and rectify mistakes of the past is true for the majority of leadership and a lot of the membership,” said Valerie Clowes about the Sweet Adelines, speaking from her home in Toronto, “until one has to face the fact that their favorite song is obscenely racist. A lot of those songs from that era talk about how great the South was, which was true only if you were white and had money.”

One of the early barbershop “hits” was “Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield,” a slave song which included lyrics like “O some tell me that a nigger won’t steal/But I’ve seen a nigger in my cornfield” (later changed to “Some folks say that a rebel can’t steal/But I found twenty in my corn-field”). Another example is “Mississippi Mud,” which was recorded, among others, by Ray Charles, even though the “When the people beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud” line was changed from the now-politically incorrect “When the ‘darkies’ beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud” original. I asked Lynch whether BHS competitors still sing these songs, even if the song versions are sanitized.

“It’s a great question, and one that doesn’t have a direct, simple answer to it either,” said Lynch. “As you can well imagine, there is sensitivity involved in singing songs from an era in which people did not enjoy equal rights. It’s a fine line between celebrating the music for its own purpose and acknowledging the culture in which it grew up. Even now as we’re looking at our expanded efforts towards inclusion and diversity in our organization, these debates are going on every day in both our leadership and membership.” I press him: is the BHS still using these songs in competition? Lynch pauses and thinks.

“I understand and trust that you’re not trying to trap me in a statement, but I would say for the most part no, [those songs are no longer used]. We have sufficient awareness of those cases, so no, we would not do that.”

I ask Valerie Clowes if these discussions on whether or not to continue singing offensive (even if sanitized) Dixie songs are the equivalent of the Confederate monument/flag debate.

“Yeah … Exactly,” she says.

For their district competition in Dallas on October 6-7, SA’s Marcsmen won’t have to deal with that problem. They will sing Robert Rund’s “Tomorrow is Promised to No One” and Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love,” while Friends in Harmony will stay home doing what they do best: harmonizing and having fun.

“For those who want perfection, there’s the Marcsmen; for those who want to have fun, there’s us,” said Dolt. “Don’t get me wrong, [the Marcsmen] are phenomenal, but it’s not what we do. If every note isn’t perfect, if everything isn’t in perfect balance, that’s not going to affect world peace. What will affect world peace is my relationship with each member of the chorus. That’s why we’re called Friends in Harmony, and that’s why I’m aggressively trying to embrace a very inclusive element in our chorus, and the chorus is supporting me 100 percent. That’s what we want and that’s what we are going to do.”


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