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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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.