Pandemic or no, some of Minnesota’s barbershop quartets resume singing valentines tradition

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Pandemic or no, some of Minnesota’s barbershop quartets resume singing valentines tradition
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The year was 1954, and romantic crooners like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Doris Day dominated the airwaves. Gordon Everest would have none of it.

Everest, then a middle school student in Alberta, Canada, was tuned into the oldies — as in the music of 1898 to 1931 and thereabouts: “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Wait ’til the Sun Shines, Nellie” — as performed a cappella by barbershop quartets. With his head and heart inspired by the four-part melody, Everest joined the Calgary chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, where the bass and the tenor and the baritone vocalists took their cue from the second-highest voice, a single lead who had no need of microphone or musical instrument.

He was hooked.

Fast forward 68 years, and he’s no less in love with the Barberpole Cat Songbook — the fundamental repertoire that any self-respecting barbershop quartet can belt out by heart.

“If you go anywhere in the world, a barbershop singer will know the ‘polecat playbook’,” said Everest, a former St. Paul resident and retired faculty member in information systems at the University of Minnesota.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

Given the social-distancing demands of the pandemic, the past few months have been difficult ones for the Land O’Lakes district of the Barbershop Harmony Society, which spans Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northern Ontario. The longstanding tradition of selling singing valentines — a district staple since 1980 — was put on hold last year in light of the public health crisis.

This year, six chapters plan to make up for lost time. The Twin Cities Singing Valentines committee, a consortium of all-volunteer barbershop chapters in the metro area, will deploy three male and three female quartets across the metro on Valentine’s Day to serenade sweethearts and spread romantic joy far and wide. A chapter based in Stillwater will venture as far as Pierce County and St. Croix County, Wis.

The singers don’t don masks, but they can perform socially distanced from the audience.

“We can spread out and be set away from the people we’re singing to,” Everest said.

In the past, the committee has deployed as many as 25 quartets on Valentine’s Day, with some groups delivering as many as 18 performances from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. They’ve sung at construction sites, classrooms, a delivery room (delayed a day because the baby wouldn’t wait) and even a prison.

“We have a lot of quartets this year who are not willing to go out, with this whole COVID situation, and some places that are not willing to host us,” Everest acknowledged.

‘REALLY PLEASED, OCCASIONALY STARTLED’

Helen Vulu, a resident of St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood and baritone with the female quartet Company’s Coming, said her foursome won’t venture out this year, but they may sell pre-recorded music.

Most years, recipients of live singing valentines are “really pleased, occasionally startled,” Vulu said. “One young man, we came to sing for him at his workplace, and he didn’t want anyone to hear us. He was just dumbfounded and embarrassed. … I have no idea what his relationship to his girlfriend was. Maybe it wasn’t as solid as he thought. If we’re going out to sing to older people, they just love it. Most everybody loves having something a little special.”

This year, the chapters are offering a pre-recorded virtual valentine option for $29. Otherwise, two in-person songs would cost a born romantic $39 for “early bird” booking before Feb. 8, or an additional $10 if booked after. Those songs are delivered within a four-hour window on Feb. 14. Narrowing the window to a one- or two-hour timeframe incurs an additional $10-$20 charge. All net proceeds support the chapters, which are nonprofit organizations.

Booking information is online at sing4me.net.

CHAPTERS ACROSS THE U.S.

Barbershop quartets have gone through periods of near-dormancy and resurgence over the years, but pandemic aside, the Nashville-based Barbershop Harmony Society considers the past few years fertile ones for the discipline. Its membership now spans some 20,000 performers in 700 chapters across the U.S. and Canada, with affiliates in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and elsewhere throughout Europe.

The society, which formed in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1938, began enrolling women in 2018, though most ladies gravitate to the Sweet Adelines International, which also boasts some 20,000 members, or the organization Harmony, Incorporated. Until 2007, the Barbershop Harmony Society was based in Kenosha, Wis.

The chapters delivering Valentine’s Day performances this year include the Croix Chordsmen, the Minneapolis Commodores and the St. Paul North Star Chorus for the men, and the Lake Country Chorus, Twin Cities Show Chorus and Vallee De Croix for the women. More groups are likely to come back online as the pandemic hopefully ebbs.

“I expect to still be doing it next year,” Vulu said, “and I hope it would be in person.”

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