April 11, 2013 - Sing It! Day

Today is special because of two (count 'em, two!) different holidays that have to do with songs and singing!

First, today is Barbershop Quartet Day.

Back in the “good old days,” the barbershop was a place where people hung out, gossiped, and clowned around with one another. Sometimes African American men would sing while they waited their turn in the barber's chair...messing around with harmonies as they belted out familiar spirituals, folk songs, and popular tunes. Of course, they always sang a cappella, which means without the accompaniment of any musical instrument.

Without a guitar or piano providing a rich sound, these singing sessions at the barbershop started to follow a pattern of four-part harmony. One man would sing “lead”—that is, he would sing the actual tune—and three other men would sing harmonies above (tenor) and below (baritone and bass).

The practice of singing at the barbershop caught on, and the a cappella four-part-harmony style caught on even more, spreading to minstrel singers, women singers, and even church choirs. Nowadays, barbershop quartets don't generally sing at a barbershop, but they sing without accompaniment from any musical instruments, and they sing with tight four-part harmonies.

By the way, women quartets also call the four parts lead, tenor, baritone, and bass. In most contexts, these terms mean a particular vocal range—the actor Dan Stevens, for example, has a baritone voice, and Christina Aguilera is considered a soprano—but in barbershop singing, the terms just refer to a particular part to be learned and sung: the tune, high, low, and lowest.

Richard Berry
Second, today is also International “Louie, Louie” Day.

Louie, Louie” is a song written in 1955 by a Los Angeles man named Richard Berry. It's about a Jamaican sailor who misses his lady love and is returning to the island to see her. The lyrics are inspired by Jamaican English, which has different rules than other dialects of English.

The song has been recorded many different times by many different groups, but the most famous version is the 1963 recording by the Kingsmen.

According to Snopes, the Kingsmen thought they were just rehearsing when they taped the song. The boom microphone wasn't set up properly for the lead singer, plus he had strained his voice the day before AND had braces on his teeth. At any rate, it turned out that this “rehearsal” ended up being THE recording—and the one and only big hit for the Kingsmen!

An actual letter sent to Kennedy.
So...why am telling you about the microphone and the braces and all that? It is actually quite hard to tell what words that lead singer is singing, and somehow a rumor got started the lyrics were obscene. Some outraged parents even wrote to complain to governmental officials such as Attorney General Robert Kennedy. They probably didn't complain about specific words or phrases being used in the song—since the lyrics were (a) innocent and (b) almost impossible to decipher—but they probably just complained, “This song is dirty! Do something about it!”

The FBI got involved. According to Snopes, investigators took TWO AND A HALF YEARS listening to the song at various speeds, trying to hear the obscene lyrics. They interrogated the songwriter and the various people who had recorded the song over the years—but not the lead singer who had actually sung the specific recording being investigated! Crazy, huh?

The FBI ended up ruling that the lyrics were unintelligible at any speed. In other words, they couldn't understand the lyrics. And probably the moms and dads who had complained couldn't, either. And no doubt most of the kids listening to the song couldn't. The vocal track just isn't all that clear.

In case you are interested, here are the lyrics:

Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Louie, Louie, me gotta go.
Apparently more than one
album has been pressed
made up entirely of
different versions of this
 iconic song!

A fine little girl, she wait for me;
Me catch a ship across the sea.
I sailed the ship all alone;
I never think I'll make it home.

Three nights and days we sailed the sea;
Me think of girl constantly.
On the ship, I dream she there;
I smell the rose in her hair.

Me see Jamaica moon above;
It won't be long me see me love.
Me take her in my arms and then
I tell her I never leave again.

Also on this date:

Scientist and inventor Percy Julian's birthday

No comments:

Post a Comment