David Wright: A Conversation

Dr. David Wright, barbershop arranger & historian joins Voices of Gotham on March 19 & 20 for "Lock and Ring," a two-day symposium on barbershop a cappella music.

Dr. David Wright, barbershop arranger & historian joins Voices of Gotham on March 19 & 20 for "Lock and Ring," a two-day symposium on barbershop a cappella music.

by david wright & jude thomas

On March 19 and 20, Voices of Gotham welcomes barbershop arranger and historian Dr. David Wright to New York City for our Lock and Ring series of events. On March 19, David will work with the Arrangers Lab by leading two lectures on barbershop and a cappella arranging; and on March 20 he is the featured presenter for the Lock and Ring lecture/concert at Symphony Space. This concert will present the history and evolution of barbershop harmony, featuring performances by Da Capo, Sirens of Gotham, and Voices of Gotham.

As one of the most prolific barbershop arrangers on the scene today, his arrangements are performed by groups such as Vocal Spectrum, The Gas House Gang, The Westminster Chorus, and countless a cappella groups inside and outside of barbershop. Although his specialty is barbershop close harmony, David’s work integrates jazz, blues, gospel, country, doo-wop, and contemporary a cappella. He serves as Associate Director of the three-time International Champion Chorus, The Ambassadors of Harmony, leading the chorus from 1981–1990, and he has served for over 30 years as a judge in barbershop competitions. 

In addition to his work as an arranger, David is one of the current authorities on the history of the barbershop style. He has taught the “History of Barbershop” course at Harmony University since 1986 and has been at the forefront of promoting a renewed historical understanding of barbershop harmony. He serves as chair of the Department of Mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis where he teaches a course on music and mathematics, and recently presented on the subject of mathematics and tuning in barbershop musicIn anticipation of the upcoming “Lock and Ring” events, David spoke to VoG’s Arrangers’ Lab manager Jude Thomas about his experience as a barbershopper, the history of the style, and the future of barbershop harmony.


How did you start barbershopping, what got you into it, and what was your trajectory when you began?

I joined the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS, or “the Society”) in 1975. I had sung a cappella in church as a kid, I grew up in the Church of Christ singing a cappella, and my family sang in a quartet out of the hymnal. When I was pursuing my PhD at Columbia in New York City my older brother Wayne got interested in barbershop. He was living in Charleston, Illinois and joined a chorus directed by Tom Woodall. Wayne knew I would love it and kept telling me, “You’ve got to do this; you’ve got to check it out.” However, I was just too busy as a graduate student in New York. But then when I got my first (and only) job at Washington University in St. Louis I thought, “OK, I’m going to try this.” I looked up the local barbershop chapter, which was the St. Louis Number One Chapter—still exists today—and I joined. I was intrigued by the music and I loved to stand around and sing songs from the old Just Plain Barbershop book.

The Barberpole Cat Song Book: a collection of songs known by barbershoppers worldwide.

The Barberpole Cat Song Book: a collection of songs known by barbershoppers worldwide.

After about three months the director quit and they asked me to be the director because I could sight read parts out of the The Barberpole Cat Song Book. I directed there for about five years up until the early 1980s. Now I didn’t know what was doing: I didn’t have any experience directing and I wasn’t a trained musician; I just liked to harmonize. Eventually I stepped down from directing and ended up joining the St. Charles chapter in the suburbs of St. Louis. That chapter eventually would become The Ambassadors of Harmony (AOH), but at the time they were called “The Daniel Boone Chorus.” I really liked singing with them and pretty soon they asked me to be the director, and that’s really where I took off as a barbershopper.

I should mention that the whole time I had put together a quartet, Quadratic Equation, and we won the Central States District contest in 1979 (we competed in the International Quartet Competition the next year in 1980 and came dead last), and I was doing arrangements for both my quartet and AOH. The judging also intrigued me and in 1981 I got into the judging program in the Arrangement Category, which was part of the four-category system that preceded the current judging system.

What drew you to arranging?

The arranging started when I was a kid. I used to sit in church and look at the hymns. The hymnals in the Church of Christ and other Southern churches used shape notes. I noticed those shapes and figured out what they were, and eventually I didn’t need the lines and spaces anymore. All I needed was the shapes and I knew how the song went. I didn’t know any technical names for notes and chords, but I knew that the tonic triad was a housetop, diamond, and circle. I had a whole vocabulary; I knew all the chords basically by how they sounded instead of what they’re called. I’d also notice there was incomplete chords, which always annoyed me because it didn’t fill out the harmony.

My first arranging came when my mom would give me a pencil and pad to draw during the church services, but instead I’d write in the missing notes in the hymnal. She’d, of course, get mad at me and slap my hand. Then in college I sang in a gospel quartet (we called ourselves The Chantiers) I would do arrangements for us, still writing down my arrangements with shape notes. When I joined BHS I attended Harmony College and went to Burt Szabo’s theory class and took the arranging classes. This is where I learned music terms like dominant, subdominant, and the like. As I mentioned, I knew what all these chords and sounds were only by the way they sounded, but now I knew all the standard vocabulary used by musicians. I also learned about the structure and form of barbershop arrangements.

Shape notes are a system of notation in which different tones have different shapes. Shape notes became popular in the 19th century as a teaching method in singing schools. Two of the earliest manuals to include shape notes were The Easy Instructor (1801) by William Smith, and The Musical Primer (1803) by Andrew Law.

Shape notes are a system of notation in which different tones have different shapes. Shape notes became popular in the 19th century as a teaching method in singing schools. Two of the earliest manuals to include shape notes were The Easy Instructor (1801) by William Smith, and The Musical Primer (1803) by Andrew Law.

I started arranging pretty quickly for my quartet Quadratic Equation. One of my early arrangements was “Old St. Louis,” which I did about 1977 or 1978 (you’ll hear it in contest often these days). When Quadratic Equation won the district contest in 1979 we performed that chart. It was really on the edge of acceptability at the time. The Arrangement category judge gave us a big negative score and when we met with the judge at the post-contest evaluations he said that we should have been disqualified for the arrangement, but the judging panel decided to let us through.

What were their issues with the chart?

The Arrangement Category was very restrictive back then. It had an “illegal” chord at one point, but more importantly it was a song type that the judges didn’t buy into. Back then there were essentially only two song types that the judges thought were appropriate for barbershop, which is not historical. The songs had to be either a racing uptune or an ad lib ballad, and “Old St. Louis” was neither. It was a swing tempo ballad, and “swing tempo” was a dirty word. Barbershop didn’t do swing, you did ad lib or a fast tempo.

Swing tempo ballads are quite common these days. This must have been one of the earliest of those charts.

Probably too early! I remember one notable person objecting to it; he said, “When I hear that song I can hear a brush stroke.” That, I guess, condemned the song because if you can hear a brush stroke, it’s not good barbershop. It’s a premise that says that barbershop has no intersection with other kinds of music. If a song had a label, if it could be classified as any other label, it wasn’t barbershop. If it was country, it meant it wasn’t barbershop; if it was jazz, folk, bluegrass, whatever, then it wasn’t barbershop. Later I pointed out that originally, none of these songs were barbershop. We were singing mostly Tin Pan Alley songs from about 1900–1930 that, originally, weren’t barbershop, but instead were mostly ragtime-style songs.

Was it this misconception that led to your interest in the history of the style?

I was drawn into the issue mostly when I became a judge. There was lots of discussion about what constituted the barbershop style, and people would say things, just make assertions without even a cursory study into where barbershop came from. As result the style became more and more restricted. Now we’ve freed it up, but during those years there was a small stock of songs and song types you could sing.

Val Hicks, a veteran arranger and judge, had a broader perspective that many others. He taught the History of Barbershop course at Harmony College that I teach now, so he had actually listened to barbershop recordings that dated before the formation BHS in 1938. In the discussions he would give handouts and make comments about things quartets did before the Society existed. Nobody paid it much attention. They’d look at it and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but that was it. And Val was mild mannered so it didn’t get much further. However, I decided to press the point more, and being a judge at the time, I was able to influence the system from the inside.

I remember writing a letter in the late 1980s, at the time that the old four-category system was started to get outdated, saying that we had become too restrictive. It was actually somewhat warmly received, and it was a signal that we were ready to back off a bit on the issues mentioned above. Then I was one of the people that helped to bring in the judging system we have now. So in the early 1990s we began formulating how we should be judging barbershop, and decided to discard the old categories and come up with new ones. This opened barbershop up to becoming more of a contemporary a cappella style—which is what it was historically, say in like 1915 or 1900. The singers back then just sang songs they knew, old and new. If you listen to the early recordings from about 1900, some of them are of old songs (like 50 years old), and some were brand new. As far as I can tell, there’s been no era of barbershop up until the ‘70s and ‘80s when barbershoppers didn’t sing new and old songs.

Would you say this is the largest misconception that barbershoppers have about barbershop?

Yeah, the remnants of this idea, that good barbershop needs to be a song that was written between 1900 and 1925, is the biggest misconception we have. Instead we should be thinking of barbershop a style of harmony, of voicing, and also a style of vocalizing. But this misconception is fading away.

Do you see any misconceptions emerging as this one disappears?

I’m not sure “misconception” is the right word, but rather unawareness. It’s the unawareness of where barbershop came from. People who get hooked on it today don’t have prejudices about song type—they love the harmony—but they’re unaware that the early practitioners of this type of music included Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong. We don’t realize that it came up with other types of music that are indigenous to the United States. And that barbershop has largely African-American roots, not exclusively, but largely. Then, of course, there’s a lot of ignorance about the race issue. People are unaware that both BHS and Sweet Adelines International were whites-only organizations until the 1960s. That’s a skeleton that needs to come out of the closet, and I think we have brought it out to some extent: we published an article in The Harmonizer last year, and I gave my talk on the African-American roots of the style both at the 2015 Mid-Winter convention and at the International convention in Pittsburgh later that year.

Like many parts of American society, barbershop organizations excluded African -Americans from membership and failed to recognize their contributions: 

1939: The first quartet contest hosted by the Barbershop Harmony Society was won by the Bartlesville Barflies.
1941: An African-American quartet from New York City, The Grand Central Redcaps, is barred from competing in the Society's annual quartet championship in St. Louis.
1958: Many Sweet Adeline chapters break away and form Harmony, Inc. after segregation becomes the official policy of Sweet Adelines. 
1963: BHS ends racial restrictions on membership.
1966: Sweet Adelines removes racial restrictions on membership.

Also, we didn’t integrate the Society out of altruistic motives. We removed the racial restrictions on membership in 1963 because we would lose our tax-free status. We also had our International Convention in Toronto that year, and Canadian barbershoppers very much objected to our policy of exclusion. Sweet Adelines removed their rules about race shortly afterward, but Harmony, Inc. had already broken off from Sweet Adelines in the late 1950s over this issue. These are things that need to be documented and things we need to come clean about.

What do outsiders misunderstand about the barbershop style?

Among musicians it’s that we don’t sing properly, or that the songs are corny; that the music is just not high-quality music. The current direction of BHS leadership under Marty Monson is working hard to dispel this belief. They’ve been making inroads with American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) and with music educators. This is happening on the chapter level as well. AOH just did a huge thing for the Missouri Music Educators Association—almost all the music teachers in Missouri were there. Our performance got rave reviews from them. So those conceptions about stupid songs and poor-quality singing are starting to go by the wayside because of this kind of work.

Most importantly is the work that both the chapters and the Society are doing with get high school music teachers to get kids singing barbershop. It’s starting to be part of the curriculum because kids like it and it gets them singing. In my area, AOH will get someone out there to work with the teacher and students, and coach any high school quartets that happen to form. Luckily we have an army of young smart guys who can coach and relate to the kids. But this kind of stuff is happening all over, and it’s changing the way music students and musicians see barbershop.

Are there similar misconceptions by non musicians?

Yes, but it’s mostly the idea of limited, or unappealing repertoire.

When I think of what I understood of barbershop before I joined the Society, I’m drawn to acts like Jimmy Fallon’s Ragtime Gals or the Dapper Dans of Disneyland. These largely defined my early understanding of the style.

Yeah, I used to think that was an unfortunate fact about barbershop, but now I think it’s OK. It’s OK to have that stereotype from the Gay ‘90s with the stylized dress and other old-fashioned mannerisms. But the style has breadth and variety. It’s like when you describe music as jazz, what do you mean? Do you mean Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five, or something else? If you hear and old recording of the Hot Five, they sound old-timey, but that doesn’t mean people won’t like it; it doesn’t create a bad impression of jazz. It’s the same thing for us with our straw hats and armbands. Maybe someone looks at that and hears that as the sum total of what barbershop is, but overall I think it’s helpful. Plus, we can’t be defensive about it—let’s face it—there are some things that are amusing about barbershop culture, and many of those bits are quite funny.

In your career as a barbershopper, what’s the most remarkable change you’ve seen?

It would be the loosening of the repertoire. When I got in, it was the height of the feeling that the barbershop style was very small. It’s been gratifying to see that unravel, and in a way that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You want to hang onto what there is about this music that makes it engaging and what has made us a great culture, but not make it so confining that is excludes things that should rightfully be included. That change has been good, and I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve done to help us get to the place we’ve arrived at today.

The other thing is the true internationalization of barbershop. Barbershop was all United States until the late 1960s and it spread to England, and then very quickly to Sweden, to Ireland, to the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, New Zealand. All this stuff was in place by the late 1980s, and there were thriving communities outside of the USA. Now with YouTube, Facebook, and the opportunities presented by the Internet, we’re seeing it everywhere. People are finding barbershop and quartets are popping up in Taiwan, Malaysia, Turkey, Brazil, everywhere. There was a chorus from Hong Kong at the recent Mid-Winter convention in Reno that could sing barbershop better than some of the district champions here; and there’s a guy in Mumbai who’s organizing male, female, and mixed quartets. It’s moving into Eastern Europe, and the cultures there are great singing societies, and there they are next to Germany, with a great barbershop organization. The way the style is spreading is really incredible.

What do you see as the future of the style?

The most important thing is what I just said: the internationalization of barbershop. We see BHS and Sweet Adelines and North America as the center of the barbershop universe, and it is right now. But I think the time is coming—and it’s not that far away—when it won’t be. We’re going to see a European alliance that is just as strong as the organizations in America. Possibly hosting their own truly international competition (BHS’s competition is not really international) where they accept the winners of our competition to compete over there. This has been very America centered, and I think that’s going to change, I really do.

I see the style as being stable in terms of the music. We’ll keep inviting contemporary songs into the style, and embracing those songs. The hook of barbershop is ringing that chord. The songs people are singing nowadays, despite what some people say, do that just as well as songs from the ‘70s, the ‘40s, or from 1910. That ringing chord is what brings people in. A foursome from Taiwan hears something on YouTube, they lift the arrangement by ear from the video, and they start singing it and ringing chords and they realize “this is fantastic!” And they get hooked on it just the way you or I did. The difference is that they didn’t need a chapter to visit to make that happen. They did it on their own.

Is there something about the physical sensation of a ringing chord that has allowed the style to spread like this—something essential or physiological to the experience?

Yeah. The reason I’m not worried about barbershop is that it’s natural. It’s based on numbers, the counting numbers and that relationship with the overtone series. You don’t have to be trained musician to feel the lock and ring of a chord. Octaves, thirds, fifths—it’s numbers. It’s something that’s absolutely universal; if there were some culture on an alien planet, our arts, sciences, and humanities would probably be meaningless to them. But the notion of “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,...” is ingrained into universe. Someone from a distant galaxy will measure quantities the same way we do, and the notion of sound vibrations according to that number series would be exactly the same. So in that sense that connection is innate, and that’s why people gravitate to it.

You’re certainly not the first to describe something universal and profound about barbershop. We may not explore that angle at the “Lock and Ring” show on March 20, but telling and singing the story of barbershop is something that Voices of Gotham is looking forward to. Thank you for sharing your time and knowledge with us, and New York City!

Absolutely, I can’t wait.


David will be leading two sessions on barbershop arranging on March 19, and speaking on the history of barbershop alongside live performances on March 20.

Get tickets now!

In the meantime, watch and listen to some of David's contributions to barbershop by several of the best barbershop groups performing his arrangements: