Perfect Pitch

Muskingum County
Josh Spiert

 Hidden in Muskingum County under the old distribution hub of Zanesville is the Y-City Barbershop Chorus.  Every Monday evening, on a sidewalk outside Grace United Methodist Church on Shinnick Street, a sign reads: “Singers Welcome.”  Walk down the steps, through the doors, and the hallway echoes with chords ringing in full harmonies.   Barbershop music is an a cappella style, though it used to be common to hear guitar accompany the melodies. It involves singing four-part chords throughout the songs.  Bass sings the lowest part, baritone usually the next lowest, while lead sings the main melody and tenor rises above it. The music does not need to be sung in a quartet. Any number of people can join in as long as the four-part harmonies remain.   Contrary to popular belief, barbershop music is still alive and thriving. The Barbershop Harmony Society began in 1938 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when O.C. Cash and Rupert Hall gathered a group of men to perform on a downtown rooftop. According to legend, the city became an audience, with pedestrians and drivers alike pausing to hear the music.Since then, chapters have sprung up across the country.  The Johnny Appleseed District encompasses Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.  Within this district are many chapters, including Y-City, named after Zanesville’s rare and iconic Y-shaped bridge. They play shows and enter competitions, but most of the members are there because they simply love the camaraderie, the music and how it makes people feel.  Ken Wheeler, who first heard barbershop music in the late 1940s, used to travel often for work.  He is now 73 years old, but when he looks back on his time in barbershopping, the feelings of acceptance and welcome are what he remembers most.Whenever Ken traveled, he would take a directory of chapters across the country. When he called various chapters, they always responded with offers for a ride or dinner and a place to stay.“When you go to a chapter meeting,” Ken says, “nobody cares what you do for a living, what’s your politics, what’s your religion, nothing else. All they want to know is, ‘what part do you sing?’ and ‘are you any good at it?’”Ken used to go to the county nursing home during the summer to sing with the Mansfield Chapter, the Fun Center Chordsmen.  He said most residents’ families would visit around the holidays, but throughout the rest of the year, it seemed that the outside world had forgotten about them.“Most of the time, we outnumbered the residents,” he says. “Nobody ever applauded and very seldom ever said anything, but you’re singing some of the old songs they remember. Pretty soon, you see a foot begin to tap a little or you look and see a little old lady with a tear coming down her cheek.”Those types of experiences are what make barbershop music so enjoyable and fulfilling for these men.“I would do a dozen of those [shows] before I would ever go to one contest,” Ken says.  “It was very meaningful to those people.”Currently, Ken is in the quartet, Kids Occasionally Agree, within the chorus. He sings with Paul Shannon, John Cooper and Dana Martin.Like Ken, Paul first heard barbershop music in 1947. During a high school dinner, four of the waiters said they wanted to sing. The students were not excited about it. When the quartet began singing, however, and the chords rang out, the hair on Paul’s arms stood up.  That is when Paul first discovered his passion.Paul joined BHS in 1950 and has paid his dues every year, except the two when he was in the service. During those years, of course, members of the Newark Chapter paid for him. Paul served as chorus director until four years ago. He gave the group its casual nickname, the Y’z Guyz. Paul sang in many quartets and choruses throughout his career.  One of his quartets, The Wayfarers, won the 1964 Johnny Appleseed District championship and reached the semifinals in the 1966 international championship before disbanding. “That was the highest I’ve been,” Paul says.  “I’m still having a lot of fun with this quartet, but we just sing around here.” Barbershop music’s glory days are a distant memory now.  After rehearsals, however, some members often gather at Tee Jaye’s and occasionally talk about the “good ole days” when people built music the proper way, as they put it.“It’s very difficult to figure out where [the songs] are going and to be able to get the chords to ‘ring,’” Ken says.That “ringing” chord is what barbershop singers strive to hear.  That distinct sound sets this music apart from other genres—the tenor vocal part harmonizing above the lead.  This rarely happens in other forms of music and gives barbershop its unique and recognizable sound.Hearing the chorus, 30 voices strong, one can feel the roots of this music tracing back a hundred years to the African-American tradition.  According to Robert Darden, author of People Get Ready: A new history of black gospel music, the first known use of the term “barbershop” in reference to music was in “Mr. Jefferson, Lord, Play that Barbershop Chord,” a 1911 song.The style began in the neighborhood barbershops around the turn of the century.  Shops opened early and closed late.  They served as a place for socializing, relaxing and discussing any number of topics. Without much money, they used what instruments they could afford.  That usually meant simply vocals and the occasional guitar accompaniment. It is generally agreed among modern barbershoppers, including the Y-City Chorus, that unaccompanied vocal music is the purest form of barbershop music.  The guitar has lost its place in the genre.The Y’z Guyz are dedicated to the music and to each other.  When they begin talking about the joy of barbershopping, their spirits rise with the tone of their voices, filled with genuine excitement.  Even the younger members have that fire within them.  Two singers, Chas Harn and Chris McKown, attend Zanesville High School.“I’ve just always loved the harmony that comes with music,” Chris says.  “The joy of being able to sing out to people and how it sounds as a group, not just as an individual, I love that. It makes you just want to keep doing it and continue listening to that sound.  That’s why I love to sing.  I love it so much.”Paul says it is very important for the chorus to keep trying to attract young members.  He is the vice president for the Y-City chapter program Youth  in Harmony, which occasionally sends quartets out to local schools.“This type of music really calls to a certain kind of person,” Ken says. “Any place you go, if there are barbershoppers there, you’re never a stranger.”The weekly rehearsals include practice for upcoming shows, business meetings and plenty of laughter.  During a rehearsal two weeks before a show, the chorus was not sure if there would be enough uniforms.  They started offering suggestions.“I don’t have a key to that locker so I don’t know what’s back there,” Jeff Jewell, chorus director, says.“We could get the 2XLs,” Paul says.  A bass quips to the man next to him, “Are they trying to say you’re big?”“I am big,” he replies.“Are we going to use the turquoise or the red for the tux?” a tenor asks.“Turquoise,” chimes the rest of the chorus.Eventually, all the details were finalized and the chorus was prepared to carpool to the annual McConnelsville show. Twin City Opera House in the town square is a fitting venue for the Y’z Guyz.  The building’s exterior of worn brick hides a cozy theater within. Pink walls lead to an overhanging balcony supported by narrow, ornamented gold columns. Velvet seats with metal frames stretch down the aisle to the pit directly below the matching velvet curtain with gold lacing.The audience’s excitement filled the whole theater, despite the fact that only half the seats were filled, as the curtain rose and the chorus began singing.  “We’re going to be crossing the country tonight,” Jeff says to the crowd.  They began with “Darkness on the Delta,” and continued up to “Old St. Louis.” When they got to “I Want to be in Chicago Town,” they sang, “You can still recall the faces, all the times and all the places, when you harmonize an old familiar song.” The lyrics seemed to ring true on the entranced faces of the audience. An older woman sat near the front with two children on either side and one sitting on her lap. There was no squirming or fidgeting. All of them watched the chorus intently.During intermission, Ken stepped in front of the curtain to start a Valentine’s Day sing-along. With short gray hair and glasses, he leans slightly forward.  His slow movements mask his feisty humor.“Everybody having a good time so far?” Ken asks, hearing applause in response. “I’ll probably be able to slow that down pretty well.”He started singing a Valentine’s Day tune and when he came to the chorus, he waited with his hand outstretched for the audience to continue. They began singing, timidly at first, and then louder. “Let me call you sweetheart. I’m in love with you.”“It’s tough to do these sing-alongs when you have older and younger people,” Ken says. “Older people know good songs.”The concert closed with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and there was a silent moment before applause.  Like an old church chorus, singing in celebration of Americana past, Y-City had lulled the audience into reverie.The Blue Bell Diner across the street served as the post-concert party. With hands full of sloppy Joes and root beer, they spontaneously burst into song.  The singing tapered off as the men made their way back to their cars for the return trip.With the McConnelsville concert complete, Y-City Chorus is back to rehearsal the next week. Climbing up the basement steps toward the door of Grace United Methodist, a final chord reverberates down the hall. A pause follows until laughter breaks. The Y’z Guyz joke back and forth while they prepare for the next performance. Until then, they will be in the same place every Monday night, seeking comfort in company, music, and memories—experienced voices singing vibrantly down the decades. 

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