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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2006 02:50 pm

Fifty years of harmony

Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus marks milestone this year

The Land of Lincoln Chorus, at a recent rehearsal
“I love to hear those minor chords and good close harmony.”
— from “The Old Songs” (words and music by Geoffrey O’Hara, 1921)

Every Tuesday evening, about 40 men meet at the Hoogland Center for the Arts to carry on a local tradition that stretches back to the time when Elvis was a rising star and a Soviet leader threatened to “bury” the United States. Since 1956, the men of the Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus have preserved a uniquely American form of vocalization called barbershop, forging enduring bonds through their love for this music. The weekly rehearsals are led by Mike Drake, a retired clergyman who travels each week from Lincoln with his brother, Larry. Mike has been singing barbershop for 11 years; Larry, who sings tenor in the chorus, joined 10 years ago. The Drakes are veteran barbershoppers, but they are wet behind the ears compared with some chorus members. Bob Walbert, a retired phone-company worker, has been a barbershopper for 45 years; Bob Brown, the only barber in the chorus, has been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for 45 years as well. The Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus got its start on July 26, 1956, when several men formed the first Springfield chorus to be officially sanctioned by the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. The founders were Al Adkins, Walt Conavay, George Hartshorn, George “Jack” Harwood, Charles Kirschner, Lee “Doc” Perkins, and E.D. Olinger. Barbershop singing had been around in Springfield for many years. In 1943, Frank Dragoo, Fred Sahlander, John McNeeley, and Tom O’Herron — known as the Harmony Kings — were crowned the finest quartet in Illinois, and they set the bar high for quality barbershopping in Springfield. The Land of Lincoln Chorus of today strives for that same quality. The Land of Lincoln Chorus performs in many venues. Church groups regularly invite the men to perform. Nursing-home residents are entertained by “the old songs.” The retired sisters at the Dominican Motherhouse are visited during each Christmas season. The chorus performs every December at the Vietnam Memorial at Oak Ridge. In July the men sing at Douglas Park. The chorus has performed at First Night, at the Festival of Trees, and with the Illinois Symphony. Shoppers are entertained on the sidewalks of downtown each year during Christmas walks. The barbershoppers have a long-standing tradition in their annual fall cabaret, during which they perform and serve as waiters at a light meal. During the second week in February, quartets from the chorus deliver singing Valentines around the area. For a modest fee, you can order a card, a rose, and one or two love songs, all delivered by a tuxedoed quartet. A recent addition to the group’s annual schedule is a spring show at the Hoogland. Last year’s show, in March, was filled with Irish music. This year’s show, scheduled for April 1, is titled “A Fool for Love.” Though most members live in Springfield, surrounding communities are well represented. Not all members can make rehearsals every week: Sometimes corn or beans must be harvested. A late business meeting may keep a singer away. Bruce Strom has found the Tuesday-evening rehearsals pre-empted lately by his obligations as an alderman on the Springfield City Council. But these men are, one and all, barbershoppers at heart. Even when they travel, they seem to be able to sniff out a quartet, a VLQ (a Very Large Quartet), or a chorus rehearsing somewhere. One member even found a group of barbershoppers manning a yard sale while he was visiting family in Amarillo, Texas. Soon they were ringing chords together. Several of the men hold dual memberships. Don Hadden sings with the Land of Lincoln Chorus in three seasons and with a second chorus, in Sarasota, during the winter. Eight of members of the chorus also sing with the St. Charles, Mo.-based Ambassadors of Harmony, the 2004 International Barbershop Chorus champions. These guys proudly wear their gold medals at rehearsals as inspiration to their local colleagues. Recently the national sponsoring organization changed its unwieldy and long name to the Barbershop Harmony Society. But only the name has changed. The goals of fellowship and harmony through song remain the same. The blending of voices in the unique chords of barbershop
harmony stands as a symbol of the universal
harmony that is the hope of every barbershopper.
At the end of every rehearsal, chorus members sing the same song: “Keep the whole world singing . . . watch good will come a-winging on a song . . . . Keep the melody ringing in your heart.”


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