Sunday, May 23, 2010
With their slick suits, coiffed hair and tight vocal harmonies, Monkey Magic could be virtually any aspiring boy band. Only the four young men's pitch-perfect singing gives away that they are actually barbershop singers and among the growing number embracing the unfashionable genre.
Traditionally the preserve of middle-aged men in stripy waistcoats and straw boaters, the British Association of Barbershop Singers (Babs) has seen youth membership double in the past six months; a surge that some attribute to a wider rise in the popularity of singing among boys and young men. This week, 2,500 people will head to Harrogate to take part in the annual convention of British barbershop singers.
"One thing driving the increase in young people attending is the availability of barbershop videos on YouTube. We get lots of people who have seen clips and want to get involved," said Alan Goldsmith, 60, chairman of Babs. "A lot of people think that young people only like pop songs, but that is not true."
While the National Barbershop Youth Chorus sings barbershop versions of modern songs, when entering competitions members are restricted to performing a list of traditional songs.
The popularity of TV shows such as The Choir – in which choirmaster Gareth Malone taught choral singing to those who have never sung before – and the hit series Glee are also thought to have encouraged non-singers to take part. Total membership of Babs has risen by 20 per cent in the past 15 months to more than 2,200, while nationwide "Learn to Sing" barbershop courses were heavily oversubscribed, with some choruses having waiting lists of 100.
Some experts believe that it may be the single-sex nature of barbershop quartets that appeals to shy youngsters. "The thing which embarrasses them is girls," said Martin Ashley, professor of education at Edgehill University, who has published extensive research into boys and singing. "Between the ages of 11 and 14, girls put boys off singing by the million. Then by the age of 15 or 16, when they have got over the period where their voice is a bit squeaky, the singing then becomes a good way to impress girls."
More than £40m of government funding has been spent encouraging young people to sing during the past three years, via the national "Sing Up" programme in schools, with the aim of increasing children's confidence and communication skills through song. Barbershop singing also offers boys an alternative to singing in church choirs, where the high-pitched songs put off some youngsters.
Professor Ashley said: "The boys in barbershop quartets are often popular types, who play football as well. Barbershop singing isn't uncool. Whereas when we asked secondary school boys what they thought of boys singing high-pitched songs, they unanimously thought that they shouldn't be singing like that."
Alan Hughes, 24, a member of the quartet Monkey Magic, started barbershop singing when he was 10. "When I was at school people thought it was a bit weird, so I didn't tell many people, but by the time I got to university people just thought it was unique. A lot of my friends now are singers too," he said. "We practise every weekend at one of our houses, most of the time we do a gig on Saturday nights. It can be quite testing on a relationship; three of the four of us have girlfriends who are barbershop singers too, so they understand."
While barbershop quartets may not be jostling Lily Allen for position in the Top 40, record companies are on the lookout for new barbershop acts. Young a cappella group Voces8 signed a recording deal with Signum Classics 18 months ago, and their barbershop-inspired album of Bond film themes enjoyed good sales. Many quartets regularly perform in small venues and private parties.
"It is mostly weddings and anniversary parties. It doesn't make us a profit but it covers our expenses and we've got to travel all over the world, which is a perk. We went on Britain's Got Talent but went out in the first round. I don't think they want people with actual talent," Mr Hughes said.
Exactly a century after rumours of his death turned out to be entirely accurate, one of Mark Twain's dying wishes is at last coming true: an extensive, outspoken and revelatory autobiography which he devoted the last decade of his life to writing is finally going to be published.
The creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and some of the most frequently misquoted catchphrases in the English language left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.
That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.
Scholars are divided as to why Twain wanted the first-hand account of his life kept under wraps for so long. Some believe it was because he wanted to talk freely about issues such as religion and politics. Others argue that the time lag prevented him from having to worry about offending friends.
One thing's for sure: by delaying publication, the author, who was fond of his celebrity status, has ensured that he'll be gossiped about during the 21st century. A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. But she was abruptly sacked in 1909, after the author claimed she had "hypnotised" him into giving her power of attorney over his estate.
Their ill-fated relationship will be recounted in full in a 400-page addendum, which Twain wrote during the last year of his life. It provides a remarkable account of how the dying novelist's final months were overshadowed by personal upheavals.
"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It's completely at odds with the impression most people have of him," says the historian Laura Trombley, who this year published a book about Lyon called Mark Twain's Other Woman.
"There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans. The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn't such a happy time. He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he'd never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile."
Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had made several attempts to start work on autobiography, beginning in 1870, but only really hit his stride with the work in 1906, when he appointed a stenographer to transcribe his dictated reminiscences.
Another potential motivation for leaving the book to be posthumously published concerns Twain's legacy as a Great American. Michael Shelden, who this year published Man in White, an account of Twain's final years, says that some of his privately held views could have hurt his public image.
"He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He's also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there."
In other sections of the autobiography, Twain makes cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies.
Parts of the book have already seen the light of day in other publications. Small excerpts were run by US magazines before Twain's death (since he needed the money). His estate has allowed parts of it to be adapted for publication in three previous books described as "autobiographies".
However, Robert Hirst, who is leading the team at Berkeley editing the complete text, says that more than half of it has still never appeared in print. Only academics, biographers, and members of the public prepared to travel to the university's Bancroft research library have previously been able to read it in full. "When people ask me 'did Mark Twain really mean it to take 100 years for this to come out', I say 'he was certainly a man who knew how to make people want to buy a book'," Dr Hirst said.
November's publication is authorised by his estate, which in the absence of surviving descendants (a daughter, Clara, died in 1962, and a granddaughter Nina committed suicide in 1966) funds museums and libraries that preserve his legacy.
"There are so many biographies of Twain, and many of them have used bits and pieces of the autobiography," Dr Hirst said. "But biographers pick and choose what bits to quote. By publishing Twain's book in full, we hope that people will be able to come to their own complete conclusions about what sort of a man he was."