A cappella will get you laid.

Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella GloryPitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin

Go ahead, make all the fun of me you want, I love a cappella. It’s probably my mom’s fault, she loved Broadway musicals and I grew up knowing all the lyrics to My Fair Lady and Oklahoma and, yes, The Music Man, where Professor Harold Hill keeps seducing the town council away from their duty into four-part harmony. I loved the Spike Lee documentary about a cappella, too. So it follows that I loved Pitch Perfect, that great little 2012 film about two collegiate a cappella teams, one all-boy, one all-girl, competing for some prize or other (Who cares? The music was what mattered.). When the credits rolled and I saw that the film had been based on an actual book, of course I had to read it.

While there are virtually no similarities between book and film, nevertheless this is one of those books specializing in a single subject that is fun and informative and left me googling the dates for the next A Cappella Festivella at UAA. Rapkin writes

That a cappella began with Gregorian chant in the church shouldn’t come as a surprise–what’s closer to God than the unadorned voice? The music then traveled. In time, the Puritans would embrace shape-note singing and a book of vocal spirituals called The Sacred Harp. Call-and-response singing from Africa, meanwhile, would mingle with these vocal traditions to become American gospel. Somewhere along the way, what began as a service to a higher power went secular. Then it went pop. This is how…

Rapkin takes us from the Mills Brothers in 1931 to Pete Seeger and the Weavers’ 1950s cover of Solomon Linda’s 1939 song “Mbube,” better known to us all (and especially my mother, who was also a huge folk music fan) as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” or “Wimoweh.” We get quickly to collegiate a cappella, which to my great surprise is no longer represented only by the Whiffenpoofs (and it is a miracle to me that they have survived this long with that name). Turns out Pitch Perfect wasn’t that far off, that today practically every college worthy of the name fields one and often more than one a cappella group, although

…a cappella is the vestige of college life that dare not speak its name. There is no shame, no real social stigma, in admitting you were a Sigma Chi. You might discuss it on a first date. You might even put it on a resume. A cappella, however, is topic non grata.

Whatever, and Rapkin also writes

On campus–though it’s crass to say–a cappella will get you laid.

Rapkin writes about three groups, the tradition-ridden Beelzebubs of Tufts, the bad boy UV Hullabahoos, and the UO Divisi, who, everyone agrees, even the group that won, were robbed at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in 2005 because one of the judges didn’t like them singing Usher’s “Yeah!” instead of something like, well, maybe “Wimoweh.” The book is about the Divisi coming back from that, or not, and the Bubs and the B’hoos trying to figure out what they are.

The Bubs aren’t professional musicians. They’re students. They’ve been using the word profession as a noun, when they should have been thinking of it as an adjective…

The thing about college a cappella is that it exists in this incredible space: college…The problem arises when you take a cappella out of the context of college–then what is it, really? A cover band. With no instruments.

Pro or am, some of the groups, especially the Bubs, get a hell of a ride out of a cappella, including right into the White House, onto the David Letterman Show and all the way to the Philippines. A lot of them find it hard to give it up when they leave college, and remain very active in their alumni associations, which makes colleges love a cappella groups all the more. An active alumnus is an alumnus who writes checks.

A whole ‘nother subculture of which I knew nothing, until now. Worth reading.

One note: There will be significant time spent on YouTube during and following the reading of this book. You have been warned.
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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

9 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Yup. Tons of fun listening to the Beelzebubs practicing or doing an impromptu concert in the dining hall. And, yes, they did always seem to have a trail of women following them.

  2. I too love a cappella, and in the movie fell in love once more with Rebel Wilson.

    Street corner singing, doo wop, barbershop, gospel, all the various ways of combining voices together. I have a large and terrifying CD collection.

  3. Preaching to the choir here (so to speak). Other than classical choral and shaped note styles, I have been lucky enough to sing some barbershop style (in both a women’s chorus and with a mixed quartet of folks I worked with). I just love the whole idea of making great music without a lot of equipment (or even a lot of people). I have to say that I wish the contemporary a cappella scene would get into more songs with everyone involved in the lyrics and harmony, as opposed to the solo/background/vocal percussion thing. That is just one option of so many!

  4. Hi, My name is Ava and I am an a cappella-a-holic. Nice to meet you all! One of my favourite a cappella groups is Pentatonix…their development of music throughout time clip is one that never fails to make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Please have a little look at them on YouTube. They had my soul singing along with them. Xx

  5. Dirt road Maine here. After your blog and dancing on my deck (Pitch Perfect clip)…now digging through my old tapes (yes, tapes) to find the a cappella tunes that had me rocking on long drives dodging moose on the way to the river. Thanks, Dana! Just what the mysterywriter doc ordered today.

  6. I am also an a cappella lover! There, I’ve said it out loud!! I love Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser! They give me goosebumps!

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