“Ring that chord,” encourages Wilderness Road Chorus director Lavelva Stevens. When the women of this barbershop-style chorus sing the notes just right, an overtone moves through the room, and the audience hears a “ringing.” It is high praise when Stevens tells the singers that the chord is “ringing.” That means they are succeeding at performing the unique American musical genre known as barbershop harmony.
“Barbershop harmony is, along with jazz, one of only two styles of music developed in the United States,” Stevens explains. The style dates to the 1850s and 1860s. Wilderness Road Chorus, which takes its name from the region in which its members reside, has been performing at community events for about 30 years. The singers are women who come from different communities along the historic Wilderness Road to sing four-part harmony, a cappella, barbershop style.
The chorus is not only about singing, but also music education. The singers learn vocal production and performing and sing at community events such as fairs, though its most favorite mission is to sing at assisted living centers and hospitals throughout the year. It has done shows at all of the centers in the area.
The singers also learn about choreography, presenting a show package with a few jokes, and they do it wearing sparkling costumes. “We love sequins,” states chorus president Jo Burroughs of Christiansburg. Wilderness Road Chorus does a lot of fun events. “We have had the honor of singing the National Anthem at a couple of Pulaski Yankees games at Calfee Park in Pulaski,” she adds. “And it is really great fun to do Singing Valentines, a special project the singers offer for Valentine’s Day. If anyone wishes to surprise a friend, they make arrangements for the singers to visit the recipient of the Valentine, for example, at the work place, and sing a love song such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
Wilderness Road Chorus is a community organization that brings together women who love to make a “joyful noise,” not only because it’s fun but also because it’s good for the body and soul. Chorus director Stevens, who is music director at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wytheville, offers a list of health benefits associated with singing. Medical studies have shown that singing lowers blood pressure; helps produce oxytocin, the hormone that makes you feel good; eases breathing, even when there has been some disease; and reduces the feeling of stress and anxiety.
Historians don’t know exactly how the music sound got its name “barbershop”. They do agree that barbershop harmony is an American art form that started in the mid-1800s. The barbershops may have been those of European immigrants and African Americans. In the mid 1800s, barbershops were social places in neighborhoods where the men got together and talked … and sang. Historians have noted barbershops often served as community centers. Presumably, where people gathered to socialize, they also gathered to harmonize.
The barbershop sound developed as the singers made up their own harmonies. It got defined formally in 1938 and spawned an organization. A couple of salesmen in Tulsa, Okla., organized a singing event that attracted so much interest, it evolved into a national men’s singing group called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.
Women singers loved the sound, too, and they organized as Sweet Adelines in 1947. Both organizations continue promoting the style and the sound under the names the Barbershop Harmony Society and Sweet Adelines, International.
According to Stevens, you don’t have to be able to read music to become a member. No special musical background is required. “We learn the songs at rehearsal, and recordings are made available for singers to practice their parts at home,” she relates.
Text by Mary Ann Johnson | Photos by Kristie Lea Photography