The Harmony of the Pioneers

Harmony is a beautiful thing in music. The Trailblazers use three part harmony, that is I usually sing lead (which I understand is a tenor), Billy sings baritone and Bob sings true tenor. When Tom Westbrook was with us, he would sing bass and we had four part harmony. Harmony parts are difficult to sing and what I like about the harmony is that it makes the lead singer (me) sound better than he really is. I admire Billy and Bob’s abilities to sing those “hard” parts. All I have to do is sing the melody…and smile.

As I mentioned in my last article, the harmony of the Sons of the Pioneers was what made them so famous and their harmony was very unique and rather complicated. In Douglas Green’s book, Singing in the Saddle: The History of the Singing Cowboy, he talks about the Son’s unique harmonizing style; he calls it the “Pioneer style”. Doug lists all the Pioneers over the years and lists what part they sang in harmony. But rather than classify someone as a lead singer, he uses the term “middle voice”.  His description of their harmony follows:

I have deliberately used the phrase “middle voice” rather than “lead” or “melody” because much of the smoothness of the Pioneer’s harmony results from their conscious lack of a melody voice. Broadly speaking, each singer sang within a certain range, and if the melody was high the tenor took it, the other two harmonizing beneath that line; when the melody moved to a middle range, the harmony parts were one above and one below; and when the melody dipped low, the harmony would be two above. The harmony thus “shifted”, sometimes many times within the course of a song, sometimes within the course of a line. A prime example of this shifting can be heard on the Pioneer’s timeless 1946 recording of  “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, where Carson sings the melody for the first two lines, with Perryman singing one below and Nolan two below; on the third line Carson jumps to tenor as the melody is taken over by Perryman in the middle and Nolan sings what is traditionally called the baritone; the final line finds Nolan singing the melody deep in the baritone range, with Perryman singing tenor and Carson signing what some call a “high baritone”, that is, the baritone “part” sung an octave above where it is normally found.

This intricate harmonizing is fundamental to appreciating the Pioneer’s glorious blend and explains why I hesitate to call the middle voice a “lead” voice, because any voice, on any given line or even phrase within a line, could be said to be singing “lead” (melody) when singing western harmony. Pioneers style. (Page 86).

OK, did everyone follow that? Pretty cool, huh? But don’t look for the Trailblazers to be using that style of harmony anytime soon.

Jerry Sprague

The Wannabe Cowboy

September 20, 2013