A haircut in four parts

Boulder Timberliners prep for 66th annual Barbershop Harmony Festival

Courtesy of The Boulder Timberlines

Though the group and the event started in the same year (1948), Allan Barker, director of the Boulder Timberliners isn’t sure who the longest-running participant in the Barbershop Harmony Festival at Chautauqua is.

“I couldn’t say. The average age is pretty high. Memory is the first thing to go,” he says. “Or the second. I don’t remember the first.”

The festival is now in its 66th year, and is all set to say hello any and all to babies, darlings and ragtime gals at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 24 at Chautauqua Auditorium.

And according to Barker, it’s one helluva hello.

“Chautauqua is to barbershop what Cheyenne is to rodeo,” he says. “It’s the big daddy of them all.”

Five full choruses and eight quartets will be coming from all over Colorado to croon something epic and celebrate the simple beauty of the human voice with harmonized standards, pop reboots and medleys.

“It’s kind of hard to explain, but when you got four guys that are pretty equally matched, when you sing a chord that’s nice and equally balanced, the frequencies of the harmonies follow four squiggly paths and where they overlap, you get overtones that are sometimes an octave above the notes being sung. And you can actually hear those. On recorded equipment you can’t, but in person you can. It raises the hair up on your arm. It’s kind of a nice feeling,” says Barker.

And there will be plenty of arm hair to be raised at the Barbershop Harmony Festival. The finale will be several songs from the 250 or so participants.

“It’s quite spectacular,” he says. “It’s a wooden auditorium. You get that many people up on stage and you can really rattle the rafters.”

Barker says barbershop groups can pull together a giant presentation like that because there’s a short catalog of “polecat songs,” every barbershop singer learns, so that when travelling they can find a chorus and join right in.

But before the big finale, there will be songs from the individual groups, as well as barbershop’s equivalent of a suicide improv.

“We have a pickup quartet contest,” he says. “You go and sign up and tell ’em your part, and then they draw cards and you randomly wind up in a quartet. You have 20 minutes to sneak off and practice somewhere.”

Yikes. But Barker says it’s not as fear-inducing as it might seem to an outsider. Besides the shared vocabulary of the polecat songs, he says, barbershop is a really good way to make a group sound good in a hurry.

“The basic premise behind barbershop is it takes four average to mediocre singers and it makes them sound really good,” says Barker. “Whereas individually, they’re not so good, the total is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Anyone looking to test his thesis is welcome to attend open weekly meetings of the Boulder Timberliners Tuesdays at 7 p.m., at the Mount Zion Lutheran Church at Balsam and Broadway, where they run vocal exercises, sing polecat songs and generally harmonize.

Barker says that like so many civic clubs, membership is down but not out.

“We have more members now than we had in the ’40s and the ’50s, but we don’t have as many members as we had in the ’70s and ’80s,” he says.

He says as an art form, barbershop is struggling a bit, but its raw simplicity, as well as its multi-continental presence, means it is likely to endure.

His pitch for people to give it a shot? “People say, ‘Well, uh, I sing in the shower.’ I say, ‘I started out there too. It’s safe. But the group that I sing with now, they give you voice lessons, they have learning tapes so you can learn your part without having to read music.’” 

Those who are appreciative but slightly more timid can also hire members of the Timberliners to perform singing Valentines dressed in tuxedos — not red stripes.

“The fashion changes, but the music style doesn’t,” he says.

Or, for more immediate gratification, just go to the Barbershop Harmony Festival or its afterparty at The Broker.

“It gives the quartets a chance to sing some of the songs they didn’t get to sing,” he says.

And how long will the afterparty go? 

“We’ll sing until all the quartets disappear,” he says, offering the barbershop equivalent of it being on until the break of dawn.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com