The members of the Chordlighters Barbershop Chorus consider themselves true American originals.
Along with jazz and spiritual music, barbershop four-part harmonies are the only type of music to originate in the U.S. The lead, tenor, baritone and bass come together to form a unique sound that’s a throwback to the all-vocal songs of the early 20th century.
“Every other musical art form evolved from another country, and was brought over here. But the four-part harmony was all from America,” said Tom Fricke, a Greenwood resident in the choir.
The Chordlighters have come together to preserve the art of four-part harmony. With more than 40 vocalists, they sing barbershop classics as well as more modern tunes. They perform at holiday events and private concerts, appearing at random to sing on the streets with the hope that their voices attract new members.
Singing in a historic style is a sense of pride for the Chordlighters but also creates a problem recruiting getting past the image of handlebar mustaches and straw hats.
So the chorus has tried to balance the traditional style of barbershop with the need to appeal to younger fans to carry on their mission.
“We try between our performances and people we see on the streets, our goal is to make sure there is youth coming in,” said Marc Hagn, a Franklin resident and member of the chorus. “There is plenty of youth, but it’s whether they stay with it.”
The Chordlighters are just one of hundreds of groups that make up the Barbershop Harmony Society, which oversees barbershop competitions, concerts and education throughout North America.
More than 25,000 people belong to the society, which has been in existence for 75 years.
To recognize this anniversary, the Chordlighters worked with Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers to proclaim the week of April 7 to 13 as “Barbershop Harmony Week” in the city.
The effort was one of the many ways the chorus is trying to spread the word about barbershop.
Witnessing the music has been the main thrust of the chorus’ recruiting pitch.
The group has found that the most effective method of recruiting new people is just to make it known that they are out there. They conduct “sing-outs,” or impromptu performances at larger events such as Relay for Life or before shows at the Artcraft Theatre.
“I knew barbershop, but until I saw it several times, I never thought much about it,” Hagn said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Hagn was with his family at the city’s holiday lighting ceremony when he heard the Chordlighters performing. He heard them year after year, with the four-harmony sound piquing his interest.
“Finally, my wife told me to stop singing in the shower and go there to check them out. I’ve been with them ever since,” he said.
Gene Busch of Indianapolis had never heard barbershop before. His son had become involved in performance singing as a high school student, and he wanted to sing somewhere outside school as well. Father and son joined together, and Busch has stuck with it.
Tuesdays are rehearsal night, when the members gather at Grace United Methodist Church in Franklin.
With a squawk of the pitch pipe, one of the chorus’ many quartets started in on a song.
The four voices rose together before breaking into varying parts. The lead started out alone, as the backing vocals created melody. Then they all came together in a stirring rendition of “God Bless America.”
With no instruments to guide it along, it was up to the vocals of the four men to carry the tune.
Many of their songs are patriotic or traditional ditties from the 1930s and 1940s. Songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” are classics of the barbershop format.
But they also try to pick more modern songs that fit their mission.
“The music is family oriented; that’s the appeal. Anyone in the family can do it, and there’s no foul language,” said Steve Warner, a member of the choir from Shelbyville.
But while their style is old, pop culture has given their efforts a boost. Singing shows such as “The Voice” and “Glee” have young people interested in singing.
Hagn has received phone calls from central Indiana high school students who are interested in forming a chapter. At Franklin Community High School, a small group of female students is working to do a duel concert with the Chordlighters.
That fits into the focus of getting young adults and teenagers interested in the art form. The average age of a Chordlighter member is 60, and if barbershop is going to survive, it needs new voices, Fricke said.
“The younger people today, they have so many other things to do. It’s just something they’re not interested in,” he said. “We want to change that.”