Sunday, April 3, 2016

Towards a More Inclusive Sweet Adelines: Harmonizing the World in the 21st Century

The year 2016 marks an important milestone for women's barbershop. It was fifty years ago in 1966 that Sweet Adelines formally lifted its ban against non-white membership, a ban that had been codified in the bylaws since 1957. 

In my view, "Harmonize the World" is the most beautiful mission statement any organization could ever have. I believe in the power of close-harmony singing to lift spirits, enrich lives, and connect hearts and minds. 

When I survey the thousands of gorgeous faces on the risers at our regional and international contests, I see that women of color are still few and far between. And I wonder, "Could I be doing more to make this great organization even more inclusive? Could I be doing more to harmonize the world?" 

It's a tricky question for a white Sweet Adeline like me, because it requires me to confront the race history of barbershop, which is as complex and uncomfortable as the race history of the US itself. 

But as I consider what kind of barbershopper I want to be in the 21st century, there is much inspiration to be found in our complicated history. 

Here are some personal goals I have set for myself.

1) When talking to audiences or other singers about the history and origins of barbershop, I will acknowledge its African-American roots.  

Thanks to the investigative work of music historians which the Barbershop Harmony Society has publicized in recent years, we now know that our beloved style of singing, with its distinctive harmonies and embellishments, has strong roots in African-American musical culture, just like jazz, blues, and gospel. 

In his 1929 essay, "The Origin of the Barber Chord," Harlem Renaissance icon and NAACP founder James Weldon Johnson located the origins of barbershop harmony in African-American experience:

"Pick up four colored boys or young men anywhere and the chances are ninety out of a hundred that you have a quartet. Let one of them sing the melody and others will naturally find the parts. Indeed, it may be said that all male Negro youth of the United States is divided into quartets . . . . In the days when such thing as a white barber was unknown in the South, every barbershop had its quartet and the young men spent their leisure time 'harmonizing' (Averill, Four Parts, No Waiting, 2003, p. 9)."

Among these early barbershoppers were some future giants of American music. Historian Gage Averill writes, "It is striking how many African-American figures considered foundational to their genres . . . had roots in or experiences with barbershop quartet singing," including Scott Joplin (ragtime), Willie Smith (stride piano), Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton (jazz), and W.C. Handy (blues) (p. 44).

2) I will remember that SPEBSQSA (the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America) and Sweet Adelines excluded African-American singers for decades, and I will honor those members who advocated for inclusion, including Alfred Smith, Robert Moses, the founders of Harmony, Incorporated and the Capital Chordettes. 

The Grand Central Red Caps, Central Park, Manhattan, 1941
In 1941, an African-American quartet, the Grand Central Red Caps, won the New York Quartet Contest in Central Park, where eighteen quartets competed before a crowd of 15,000. The judges included New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, former governor Alfred Smith, and orchestra leader Fred Waring. 

Winning the New York contest qualified the Red Caps to participate in the national contest in St. Louis. But the national organization refused to let the quartet advance. SPEBSQSA founder O.C. Cash wrote to one of the New York contest organizers,  

"The question of allowing colored singers to compete with others in the contests has been discussed a number of times at our meetings, and last year the board came to the conclusion that to keep down any embarrassment we ought not to permit colored people to participate.  

I hope this rule will not seriously embarrass you, as any other sort of arrangement would seriously embarrass us. Many of our members and chapters are in the South, where the race question is rather a touchy subject. Neither Dr. Rathert or I are narrow about such matters, but I know from discussing the matter with Doc and the St. Louis brothers that they do not want to get involved in a question of this kind. I hope you will be in St. Louis with other quartets." 

In protest, New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and former Governor Smith resigned their SPEBSQSA memberships. Moses wrote to Cash, 

"The first and second [place] quartets were composed of colored men.  The judges took their duties seriously and even insisted that the four leading quartets sing a second time before the final decision was reached.  We are now informed by your recent letter and telegram that colored quartets may not compete in the National Finals in St. Louis. If we had known this before we should immediately have dropped out of the national organization, a step which we are now compelled to take.  

It is difficult for me to see any difference between your national ballad contest and a national track meet in which colored men run in relays or compete individually.  This is not a social event, but a competition, which should be open to everybody.  Let me add that if American ballads of Negro origin are to be ruled out of barber shop singing, most of the best songs we have will be blacklisted . . . . Along with many others who found pleasure in the harmless amusement of American ballad contests, I am very sorry that this sour note has marred our pleasant harmonies" (Averill 110-12).

In 1957, the same year that Eisenhower sent troops to enforce the integration of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, Sweet Adelines revised their bylaws and formally banned nonwhites from membership, setting off a firestorm of controversy both inside and outside the organization. Five choruses (in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Ontario) resigned, then collaborated to form a new, non-discriminatory women's barbershop society called Harmony, Incorporated

Lana Clowes (front, center) with the Capital Chordettes
In 1963, a Canadian Sweet Adeline chorus was threatened with expulsion for accepting tenor Lana Clowes, a woman of color (Averill 133). The chairman of the human rights committee of the Canadian Labor Congress called Sweet Adelines' membership policy "outrageous discrimination." 

Ontario Heartland Chorus Asst. Director Valerie Clowes
(daughter of Lana Clowes), left
With Sandi Wright and Adala Suzette Zelman
(photobomb by SAI President Marcia Pinvidic)

Member Beverly Perkins told an interviewer, "Lana has a beautiful voice and she is an asset to the chorus. This is heartbreaking for all of us."  Over twenty of Clowes’ chorus sisters resigned from Sweet Adelines and, together with Clowes, established a new chorus, the Capital Chordettes, under the umbrella of Harmony, Incorporated. 

Painful ironies abound in the history of SPEBSQSA and Sweet Adeline efforts to "Keep America Singing" and "Harmonize the World." It can be tempting to downplay the uncomfortable parts of our past. 

But thinking about those who came before me, and who advocated for inclusion, inspires me to be a better advocate myself. I agree with barbershopper and historian Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox: "We do not need to wallow in our mistakes as an organization to be forthright and complete in acknowledging them. Anything less has the appearance of dishonesty." 

3) I will think twice before choosing repertoire about how great things used to be in good ol' Dixie.

We barbershoppers are all preservationists at heart. Cherishing, celebrating, and promoting the songs of the past is a big part of what we do. We tend to be passionately sentimental, nostalgic people, and change does not come easily to us. 

But the reality is that barbershop has changed a great deal. 

In the 1950s it was not uncommon for SPEBSQSA chapter shows to have a minstrel theme and to feature quartets in blackface, a practice finally banned in the 1970s (Averill 133). And while we have retained many songs from the early 20th century, there are others so egregiously racist that we would never think of singing them any more. 

Moreover, there has always been a dynamic tension between the "preservation" impulse and the "this-really-bothers-some-people-so-let's-find-another-song" impulse, with hardcore traditionalists resisting change at every step of the way. 

The earliest example I have found of this ongoing tension dates back to 1925, when white musicologist and barbershopper Sigmund Spaeth criticized an African-American quartet for altering the original lyrics to the popular barbershop song, "Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield" :

"Oh, some folks say that a nigger won’t steal . . . 
But I caught a couple down in my cornfield . . . 
Oh, one had a shovel and one had a hoe . . . 
If dat ain’t stealin, I don’t know."  

The quartet had substituted "preacher" for "nigger," and Spaeth, anticipating in 1925 the sorts of patronizing, anti-political-correctness arguments we are familiar with today, argued against changing the lyrics, claiming that most African-Americans "really prefer the forthright 'nigger'" (Sigmund Spaeth, Barber Shop Ballads and How to Sing Them, 1925, quoted in Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, letter to the Harmonizer, March 8, 2015). 

Nobody sings "Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield" any more, thankfully, but problematic songs about the glorious Old South are alive and well and performed regularly at contests. 

Having grown up in Alabama amid magnolias, honeysuckle, and cotton fields, I have a fondness for the rich imagery of many songs in the Dixie genre, and some of the most jaw-dropping, stand-up-and-cheer chorus contest performances I have witnessed have been performances of Dixie songs. 

But in recent years, I have come to believe that these songs are an obstacle to inclusion, even when lyrics are altered.  In Sweet Adelines, we ask our singers to pour their heart and soul into every song. We spend weeks, months, even years exploring every nuance of every chord and lyric.

White privilege can blind us to the psychological discomfort experienced by many women of color when they are asked to make that kind of emotional investment in a song like "Floatin' Down to Cotton Town," whose original lyrics were all about happy "darkies" playing the banjo and "dear old Mammy standing by the [slave] cabin door."

At this point I have talked to enough women of color who love ringing chords but dislike the Dixie genre that I simply don’t perform those songs any more. 

4) I will fearlessly advocate for the inclusion of women of color in Sweet Adelines promotional materials.

Last year, Sweet Adelines produced a video to help members spread the word about our Global Open House. I happened to see it within minutes of its first appearance on Facebook.

It was a gorgeous, powerful, moving video with high production values, featuring quartets and choruses from around the world, and I loved every beautiful frame of it - except for one problem. 

Among the thousand or so Sweet Adelines shown in the video, there was not a single visible woman of color. 

Here's what I did about it: nothing. I just shook my head and went on with my day. Within a very short period of time, the video had been viewed and shared thousands of times. 

Here's what I should have done: immediately gotten on the phone, called International, and said, "You guys - that video you just posted is spectacular, but there’s this one problem that I know you’re going to want to fix before the whole world sees it!" 

I should have treated the omission of women of color the same way I would have treated a glaring typo in the video title (like "Sweaty Adeloons"). Who isn’t grateful when a friend stops us from turning in our term paper with a big typo in the title, or going into the big interview with our zipper down, or walking onstage with spinach in our teeth? 

Thankfully, other, braver members did speak up about the omission. Our fearless leaders at international headquarters, to their credit, breathed a collective "Oh, crap!" and within 48 hours or so produced a fantastic new version of the video, re-edited to include many women of color performing in choruses and quartets. 

I regret that I failed to act immediately, and that I failed to trust that my leaders would correct the omission once it was pointed out to them. In the future I will be a more ardent advocate for inclusion, and I will have more faith in my Sweet Adeline sisters.

5) I will step up my support for the Sweet Adelines of color who are already here.  

It takes guts to join any organization where you are visibly in the minority. While recognizing that it is not the responsibility of women of color to make Sweet Adelines more inclusive, I will value their perspective on all matters related to inclusion. 

I will resist the temptation to rationalize a questionable repertoire choice by saying, "Mary is African American, and she hasn’t complained about that song, so it must be okay." 

Instead I will ask myself, "Is this song the BEST recruiting tool to welcome more women of color into my Sweet Adelines family? Can I do better?"

6) Finally, I will remember why I love barbershop.

I always say that what I love most about barbershop is not the songs or the sequins or even the ringing chords, but the intimacy. Our special brand of close-harmony singing demands that we pay extremely close attention to the woman beside us — to her breathing, pitch, timbre, timing, posture, attitude, and energy.  

At its best, barbershop quartetting is a transcendent experience in seeing and being seen, listening and being heard. It is four singers actively, consciously, deliberately weaving their voices together, making art from breath, always in the service of our highest artistic value, unity. 

Whenever I quartet, or even sing a tag, with other barbershoppers, it is impossible not to love them, myself, and the world a little bit more than I did before. I want as many people as possible to experience this joy. 

Going forward into the 21st century, I am determined to do my part to enlarge the umbrella of harmony. I vow to eliminate barriers wherever I find them, and to remain open to the possibility that I may have more to learn and more personal changes to make. 

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, we do what we know, and when we know better, we do better. 

Here's to the next 50 years of harmonizing the world!


  1. LOVE this article. Concise and informative. Thank you for articulating and keeping the communications open. Let's be inclusive not exclusive!

  2. Wisdom from the ages; inclusion is the word this decade. Will we see head scarves too? I hope so!

  3. Wisdom from the ages; inclusion is the word this decade. Will we see head scarves too? I hope so!

  4. Hi Elizabeth,

    I'm Gordon Clarke and have recently "retired" from barbershop because of hearing difficulties (age 79(.

    When I saw your Facebook post, with mentions of the BHS and Sweet Adeline (but none of Harmony, Inc.), I was anticipating some sweeping under the rug the reasons for HI to leave SA.

    I was pleasantly surprised by your even handed handling of that issue, along with some new information for me about how BHS handled that issue.

    Thanks for a thoughtful and thorough coverage of these issues.


  5. Could not love the direct, informative, and helpful tone of this article more. This is such a necessary conversation. As a youth member of SAI, I have often contemplated addressing the relative lack of diversity in our choruses, yet found it hard to think of ways to translate those thoughts into necessary action. Thank you for making this article about not just acknowledgment, but action. I will definitely be working to implement these suggestions in all aspects of my barbershop life!

  6. Thank you for tackling this important topic with the candor and sensitivity it deserves. By bringing in both a historical and very personal perspective, you have created a very thought provoking conversation starter. Beautiful job, Elizabeth.

  7. Kudos to you Elizabeth, for your clear, balanced, tell-it-like-it-is coverage of this topic. I have sung with women who indeed left SAI because of the denial of the African-American roots, and BECAUSE of offensive lyrics in Dixie repertoire. I STILL CRINGE at some of the Good Old Dixie songs. Perhaps our MUSIC JUDGES could advance the organization's growth by evaluating and commenting on the INappropriateness of such Dixie songs as competition material. That would bring rapid progress, if such songs were no longer competition material. Thanks for blogging on this!

  8. Awesome article Elizabeth! And thanks for including a picture of my chorus, Mission Valley.

  9. Excellent article. Thanks for addressing an issue that has weighed heavily on my mind for many years.

    Next hopefully we can continue inclusion along religious lines also. As a non-christian, I have had experiences ranging from discomfort to exclusion.

    1. Ditto. But I chose to go with the flow on the Christmas thing.

    2. Yes, this is my first year in SAI and I did feel pretty uncomfortable with the repetitively, overtly religious, christian repertoire. Not just because I am an Atheist and felt I was misrepresenting myself and felt the ideals kind of pushed on me, but because I felt I was doing the same to whoever might be listening when we carolled, and it certainly wasn't representing the Adelines as nondenominational or open hearted (as our hearts are apparently already too full, with Jesus). Some would be fine, but it was overwhelming.

  10. Thank you for this very valuable history lesson. My men's chorus rebelled a few years ago over the Music Committee's decision to have us sing a song that many felt was over-the-top sexist ("My Wife Is On a Diet"). We compromised by writing new lyrics ("My Wife is Now a Vegan"). But I'd like to think that we would not have gone along with just whitewashing (no pun intended) racist lyrics.

  11. Thanks for your insightful info, Elizabeth! It's like the lyrics in the song "Why We Sing" "music builds a bridge, it can tear down the walls." I love that song and what it represents - breaking down barriers to all people no matter what shade of color they are! Thanks for your thoughts and being who you are!

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  13. Excellent article - truth-telling without judgement. ("Jus the facts, m'am").
    Finding Barbershop in a very diverse area (Miami), I was surprised that more people of color were not involved. I soon learned of the impetus of the spit to HI -
    Now, as both these organizations peacefully co-exist, inclusion and diverse involvement will only increase and build friendships in harmony focusing only on vocal skills (as 3 out of 4 judges in the pit do).

  14. Thanks for this intelligent and aware article. You are helping to transform not only Barbershop, but the world.

  15. Great article, Elizabeth! Honest, balanced, and well written.

    I am sad and ashamed to admit that I, too, noted the lack of diversity in the promotional video you mention and did nothing about it. Although I have been advocating for years for more outreach to communities of color, I have been unsuccessful in making change. A serious, focused marketing campaign is what we need, starting with hiring consultants from the communities we are trying to reach. We need to tailor the message, the methods, and the channels of communication if we seriously want to bring more women of color into the organization. All of this takes funds, and most smaller choruses do not have the budgets to support this type of effort. That's where SAI can be of help. Instead of producing videos, it would be more helpful if our International leadership would would put together some marketing studies and guidelines on how local choruses can begin the outreach process in effective ways. If more of us made such a request, do you think we could encourage them to act? I promise to start making requests and offering suggestions right now! Please join me.

    1. I hope so! Especially with the general shrinking of choruses, we already need to get the word out. How better than with a mission statement for positivity, dedication, and family (without making the campaign seem like a weak reparation: "we messed up before and feel bad, please come cure my guilt!". GENERAL inclusiveness and love is the brand we need to BE before we can expect any interest, especially from people who are going to join /knowing/ they're a visible minority. We have to be /safe/.)

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  18. Your use of the racist term "White privilege" ruined an otherwise great article.

    1. Would you like to elaborate? I'm always interested in learning about other people's perspectives.