Jack Martin says barbershop music is about as American as it gets.
“It’s that classic nostalgic stuff,” he said. “It’s songs about mama and apple pie and Chevrolet.”
Martin said his team of Forsyth County Barbershop Singers stick close to that code.
“I’m very much a traditionalist,” he said. “Our group sings music that was written for the family before everybody started watching TV and listening to the radio.”
Some might recall images of men in red- and white-striped vests, straw skimmer hats and bow-ties belting a capella melodies. While the group sports regular clothes during practice, they do not disappoint in front of an audience.
“We wear the barbershop outfit in performances,” Martin said. “We stick close to tradition in every way.”
The group of 15 singers from Forsyth, Dawson and Lumpkin counties is currently rehearsing for a Christmas show at the Cumming Playhouse.
Members meet every Tuesday night at Christ the King Lutheran Church to sharpen their harmonies.
Barbershop music is essentially just that. The sound began with informal gatherings of singers in everyday settings such as the local barbershop, according to the Barbershop Harmony Society.
Teamwork is the key to perfecting that barbershop sound, according to Dawson County resident Rich Pilch, who helped form the group with Martin.
“Everybody has to sing correctly and sing balanced,” Pilch said. “That’s the challenge, but when you hear the chords and harmonies ring right, you get a little tickle and the hair stands up on your arm. That’s when it’s good.”
Pilch and Martin called that “tickle” an overtone. It’s the combination of all four harmonies, and is one of the chief characteristics of barbershop music.
“As a group, you actually produce overtones nobody’s singing,” Martin said, adding that it often confuses musicians who can’t figure out who’s singing the fifth harmony part. “It creates itself, and it really rings,” he said.
But in order to create that “ghost note,” Pilch said every member of a quartet must sing his part.
“It’s hard,” he said, “but you have to learn your part. You cannot be distracted by the singer next to you. It takes some concentration. Some people just can’t do it.”
Pilch is a baritone, or “garbage man,” as he calls it. “Any note that’s left over to make the chord, the baritone gets it,” he said. “A baritone can and will sing any part.”
Each of the four parts of the quartet has its own role. The lead sings the melody, the tenor harmonizes with the lead, the bass sings the lowest notes and the baritone completes the chord to make a barbershop song complete.
Some recognizable barbershop songs include “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby,” “Girl of My Dreams” and “Sweet Adeline.”
Martin said the group sings some of these songs in practice, as well as some Christmas tunes they’ve picked up in preparation for the Cumming Playhouse show in December.
After forming last year, the group has grown from seven members to 15, and Martin encourages anybody with a desire to sing to come out and join them as well. “It was created to be a style of music that could be sung by the common people,” he said. “If you have any feel for music, you can learn it.”
Pilch agrees. “If you just sit and listen to us sing barbershop,” he said, “you’ll get the bug.”
Curiosity piqued one man’s interest when he heard tell of the group. “I’ve always listened to barbershop music and enjoyed it,” said Duane Hunter of Forsyth County, “and when I heard about these guys, I said to myself, ‘I bet I can do that.’”
He joined the singers in March, and Martin said as the group grows with members like Hunter he believes the Forsyth County Barbershop Singers will flourish. “We just want to do something special for the area here,” he said, “provide some good, old fashioned entertainment.”