The Past Is Prologue

Contemporary a cappella in the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon. Heck, even if we didn’t have “contemporary” in the name, it would still be only a few hundred years old. But as we commonly refer to it, we can probably limit things to the last century or less. If we talk about the history and origins of most of today’s aca-groups, the history is even shorter: a group that has been around for 40 years is considered an elder in the genre.

So why don’t some groups know their history better?

This feature was highlighted to me recently after a couple of separate incidents occurred here at Acaville. At the station, we like to play a range of contemporary a cappella, from the earlier days to today, and we played a pretty recent collegiate song (maybe 2010), only to get a tweet from the soloist expressing amazement that we played a song that was so old – something he did four or five LOOOONG years earlier. It seemed like an amusing anomaly.

But as I have been interviewing collegiate and high school a cappella groups for our Competition Countdown show, I often ask them some basic questions about their groups’ history. And I’ve been amazed at how often they stumble on the answers. Sometimes these stammers are on basic points like…when the group was formed!

History is so critical to a group’s culture. The core of history is, after all, story – the story of how the group developed and came to be. It is a shared experience over time, and it’s an experience unique to the group. In those ways, it’s like a great song, but by only knowing about the last year or two, it’s as though you know the chorus but none of the verses. It might be satisfying to sing in the short term, but it lacks the meaning of the build-up.

Most groups have occasional alumni concerts or feature a list of their alumni on their website. Many even put a brief historical blurb on their site that list occasional accomplishments. But how many of the group members have internalized that history?

And what about the less-impressive times — the years when the group didn’t make it to competition or couldn’t pull it together to do any recording or did only watered-down arrangements? Those are part of history, too, and are as important as the triumphant years. Almost every group (and almost every person) has a journey of peaks and valleys, and without the valleys, the peaks look like mere molehills. It’s context.

History can be a rallying point. Maintain the excellence of the recent past, stem the downward slide, continue the rebuilding process – wherever the group is in their evolution. But how can you do that if nobody sees the bigger picture? If nobody knows the origin story, the early period, the middle years – the path to today?

History can also be a guide to the future. The challenges of maintaining forward momentum in a group are rarely unique, and groups that have been around a while have probably faced them before. So how did they get handled? Are there lessons from the past? And since most groups are still pretty young, you could even reach out to the leadership from that era and find out firsthand.

I’m no Doris Kearns Goodwin. But it seems that if more groups took a greater interest in their history, they could be more confident in their future.

What do you think?