The last annual concert mounted by the Huron Valley Chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America and its performing arm, the all-male Huron Valley Harmonizers, lived up to barbershop's nostalgic image and high musical standards.
Emcee Art Holst, a former football referee, opened up with a series of one-liners that came straight from Johnny Carson's playbook. The Huron Valley Harmonizers, an all-male choir with a female director, Lynne Peirce, sang some numbers, including a love song pantomimed by a pair of ballroom dancers. Then individual quartets and other smaller ensembles took the stage one by one, their three-song sets punctuated by more humor from Holst and by a series of recurring skits performed on minisets at either side of the stage — slapstick routines about a practical-joker clown, and reenacted episodes of The Bickersons. One of these smaller ensembles was a guest group from the northern Lower Peninsula, the Four Man Fishin' Tackle Choir, who offered a variety of familiar tunes retexted to refer to the joys of fishing in Michigan and rendered with a sheer vocal artistry hard to find in small-town Michigan in any other tradition. Another group was a gospel octet from suburban Detroit called Seek to Be. Gospel and barbershop have influenced each other mightily along the way. Each of the seven or eight small groups that performed had its own style and look. The choir came back at the end, humming as Holst intoned, "Every year, more and more, our annual show becomes a reunion of families and a celebration of friendship."
Although it's nearly invisible on the radar screens of highbrow cultural observers, barbershop is folk music of a high order. With talents honed by a schedule of regional and national contests, some quartets make barbershop's complex harmonies their own and attain the comfort that comes with musical mastery: Washtenaw County's own all-seniors quartet, New Wrinkle, headed for California last year to represent the Huron Valley at the national level. And the music (with hidden African American origins) seems an unheralded linchpin of the culture of middle America. The ads in the program are for the businesses that keep the county and the country rolling along — insurance agents, plumbers, hardware stores. It's music at the local level, and if you've ever wondered what happened to the guys who sang solos in your high school choir, it may be that they're singing barbershop somewhere.
The Huron Valley Harmonizers and their female counterparts, the County Connection Sweet Adelines chorus, hold their annual concerts jointly at Washtenaw Community College on Saturday, December 7.