Singing in parts

Two cartoons, one (a Galley Slave cartoon by Christopher Weyant in the New Yorker of 5/14/01), explicitly about four-part harmony; and one (today’s Zippy) alluding to the Ink Spots and so to their silky four-part harmonies:

(#1) (Hat tip to Peter Ross; Christopher Weyant now has a Page on this blog)

(#2) Mr. (the) Toad riffs on “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”, in a slam on 45

The galley singers: Sing it out, Mama! The Weyant is, first of all, a Galley Slave cartoon, an instance of a very popular cartoon meme, with shirtless male slaves shackled in gangs on benches and forced (by a whip-wielding overseer) to row a galley (a ship primarily propelled by such rowing). The cartoon meme relies mostly on incongruities: the harmonized singing in #1, the chatty woman in the Bizarro below who was signed up as a galley slave as her super-economy class airplane ticket:

(#3) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

Back in #1, the galley slaves are not only obliged to sing (the convention is that singing was one way of coordinating the rowers’ strokes), but to do so in four-part harmony, with direction from their overseer. That’s silly enough, but the overseer then asks for just one of the lines, as if they were all in a chorus rehearsal, and he calls it the alto — the name of a women’s line in SATB choral music, despite the fact that all of the rowers are men.

Back in the real world, in the domain of male four-part a cappella singing, in particular in male barbershop and gospel quartets, the second line (functioning primarily to fill out chords, and sung by lower tenor voices) is called the baritone line; the music has TTBB voices (higher tenor, lower tenor, baritone, bass). More on this in a while, but first more about alto voices and alto lines in choral singing.

In modern Western choral music, there are four lines in settings of music, corresponding to four ranges of the singing voice, and the same labels are used for the lines and the voices: from the highest to the lowest, SATB, soprano and alto (women’s voices and women’s lines), tenor and bass (men’s voices and men’s lines). Ordinarily, the soprano line is the melody, or lead, line; the bass line supplies the root notes of chords; the tenor line supplies either low harmony or a counter-melody or a high-harmony (descant) line down one octave); and the alto line fills in the chords. But the system of voicings is supple: on occasion, either the A or the T line can supply the melody, with the higher line or lines providing high harmony.

In Sacred Harp 4-part music, there are again two upper lines, called treble and alto, associated with women’s vocal ranges, and two lower lines, called tenor and bass, associated with men’s vocal ranges. But the melody / lead line is the tenor, and the treble sings high harmony or a counter-melody. In addition, both women and men sing the treble and tenor lines, in the octave that suits them.

Finally, a fuller story on men’s barbershop quartets (with a look forward to gospel quartets), from Wikipedia:

A barbershop quartet is a group of four singers who sing music in the barbershop genre of singing, which uses four-part [a cappella] harmony … It consists of a lead, the vocal part which generally carries the tune/melody; a bass, the part which provides the bass line to the melody; a tenor, the part which harmonizes above the lead; and a baritone, the part that completes the chord with the note not being sung by the lead, bass, or tenor singers. The baritone can sing either above or below the lead singer

… The tenor generally harmonizes above the lead, making the part the highest in the quartet. So as not to overpower the lead singer, who carries the tune, the part is often sung in falsetto, which is of a softer quality than singing in the modal register, though some quartets do make use of tenors with a softer full voice quality.

A capsule summary in chart form, of three schemes of vocal lines (with the name of the lead line in each scheme underlined):


The alto line regularly fills out chords, as does the baritone line in TTBB music. Consequently, line 2 of the 4 often doesn’t make a lot of sense on its own, a fact that adds a further bit of silliness to #1, which has just the altos sing their line.

However, women with voices in the alto range frequently have very powerful voices, so the line tends to stand out in Sacred Harp singing. And though women’s leads in operas, operettas, and musicals tend to be sopranos, there are some notably strong alto characters in musicals, including Sally Bowles in Cabaret (Kander & Ebb), Mama Rose in Gypsy (Styne & Sondheim), and Dolly Gallagher Levi in Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! So don’t discount altos.

The voice from the back of the auditorium shouts “Sing out, Louise” to the title character in Gypsy (the young Louise, who will become Gypsy Rose Lee). That voice belongs to Mama Rose, who is in fact the central character, and Mama Rose is a power alto who could stun gigantic animals with her voice. Sing out, Mama Rose!

“I just want to make a big quagmire”. A Froggish riff on:

I don’t want to set the world on fire
I just want to start a flame in your heart

— the refrain of a 1941 pop hit. From Wikipedia:

“I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” is a 1941 pop song written by Bennie Benjamin, Eddie Durham, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler.

It was written in 1938, but was first recorded three years later by Harlan Leonard and His Rockets. It was covered by several musicians and groups, most successfully by Horace Heidt on Columbia Records, whose version reached number one on the pop chart; and by The Ink Spots on Decca, whose version reached number 4. Other early versions included those by Tommy Tucker, Mitchell Ayres, and (in Britain) Vera Lynn. The song, with its lyrics starting with “I don’t want to set the world on fire/ I just want to start a flame in your heart…” became especially popular after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

The song was later recorded by Betty Carter, Frankie Laine, Anthony Newley, Suzy Bogguss and others.

The Ink Spots’ rendition of “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” is featured prominently in Bethesda’s Fallout video games, specifically in Fallout 3 and Fallout 4, and was also featured in the Academy Award-winning short film Logorama.

You can listen to the Ink Spots’ version here. (I’ll get to the delightful Logorama in a little while.)

The rest of the song parodied in #2:

In my heart I have but one desire
And that one is you, no other will do
I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim
I just want to be the one you love
And with your admission that you’d feel the same
I’ll have reached the goal I’m dreaming of, believe me

On the Ink Spots, from Wikipedia:


The Ink Spots were an American pop vocal group who gained international fame in the 1930s and 1940s. Their unique musical style led to the rhythm and blues and rock and roll musical genres, and the subgenre doo-wop. The Ink Spots were widely accepted in both the white and black communities, largely due to the ballad style introduced to the group by lead singer Bill Kenny. [They disbanded in 1954.]

… On January 12, 1939, the Ink Spots entered Decca studios to record a ballad written by a young songwriter named Jack Lawrence. This ballad, “If I Didn’t Care”, was to be one of their biggest hits, selling over 19 million copies and becoming the 10th-best-selling single of all time. … This is the first studio recorded example of the Ink Spots “Top & Bottom” format with Bill Kenny singing lead [in falsetto] and Hoppy Jones performing the “talking bass”.

The Ink Spots started as performers of “colored music”, with a racialized (but unthreatening) name they chose themselves, but their silky ballads captured a broad audience and inspired performers, black and white, in several genres. Great stuff.

Then Logorama, which you can watch here:

This is a short film that was directed by the French animation collective H5, François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy + Ludovic Houplain. It was presented at the Cannes Film Festival 2009. It opened the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and won a 2010 academy award under the category of animated short.

In this film there are two pieces of licensed music, in the beginning and in the end. All the other music and sound design are original. The opening track (Dean Martin “Good Morning Life”) and closing track (The Ink Spots “I don’t want to set the world on fire”) songs are licensed pre-existing tracks. (notes from the makers)

The film is an avalanche of over 2500 contemporary and historical logos and mascots — corporate, commercial, institutional, informational, governmental — rushing or floating by through a manic story of police chasing a criminal in a version of Los Angeles:

(#6) Advertising poster

(#7) Still from the film

Things end badly for L.A.

(Meanwhile, of course, the name Logorama is a nice example of the –rama libfix in action.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: