Harmony Master-Class: The Cactus Cuties

I still remember when the Cactus Cuties first became a viral sensation. I was watching it on Youtube, and my mom walked by in the background and said, “Huh, they sound good.” Then she leaned over to read the description and exclaimed, ” ‘Range in age from 8 to 13???'”

That was basically America’s reaction too, and if you’re one of the five people who hasn’t seen the video yet, you’ll understand why once you do. The harmony, which could only have been the result of diligent practice, appears absolutely effortless. Best of all, the Anthem is sung tastefully, with the usual vocal histrionics replaced by a winsome Texas twang.

The Lubbock, Texas quartet soon had offers and opportunities flooding in. They kept up a tour schedule for the next few years. Unfortunately, if you look up their website now, it hasn’t been updated past 2011. They resurfaced in 2012 to ask for fan suggestions about a new group name, but I haven’t found anything more recent. It appears that they eventually just broke up without much explanation. I know their tastes shifted to more mainstream pop as they grew older. Perhaps they discovered that this didn’t differentiate them enough from any number of other aspiring pop singers. The lightning in a bottle that they captured with that National Anthem performance was what made them unique.

There’s a higher quality performance from an appearance they did on the 700 Club around the time they went viral. This video also includes an interview segment where they talk about how learning the history of the song affected the way they sang it. Coincidentally, I was just quoting Harry Connick, Jr. the other day about the importance of respecting a song’s lyrics. And coincidentally, Terry Franklin was just commenting under that post about how many singers have butchered the National Anthem, because they made the performance all about their vocal flourishes. (And for readers who aren’t familiar with southern gospel music, Terry Franklin is a crackerjack pro singer and demo artist himself.) It’s very heartening to see singers this age taking their craft so seriously. I only wish they could have found a way to stay together and continue making great music for longer than just a few years.

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Harmony Master Class: Simon & Garfunkel and Andy Williams

A harmony master class, as I will define it, is a preferably live exhibition of exceptionally good harmony singing. It can be from any genre, as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing. For my first installment, I’ve chosen Simon & Garfunkel’s collaborative guest appearance on the Andy Williams show. Williams often invited and sang with popular groups of his day (including other folk revivalist bands like Peter, Paul & Mary). Although Williams’s voice is heavier than Simon or Garfunkel’s, it’s remarkable how smoothly he blends in his tones with theirs. In the little intro clip, he recalls that he didn’t find it difficult to find his part, because he grew up practicing harmony singing with his brothers.

The piece is the legendary “Scarborough Fair,” here presented with the rarely heard, Simon-penned counterpoint tune “Canticle.” As you might be able to tell, the lyrics are rather flaky and anti-war (you can follow along here), but then that’s only to be expected. However, if you concentrate on the music, it’s quite exquisitely woven together with the folk song.

It might look a bit odd that Garfunkel appears to be staring very intently at Williams as they sit in a circle around a single microphone, but this is a practical choice. As I can confirm from personal experience, eye contact is especially important in synchronizing close harmony when you haven’t sung extensively with your singing partners.

An interesting detail is the way Paul shows off his upper range around 2:48, harmonizing above Williams while Garfunkel sings the counterpoint, then dips back under him for the next line. As a duo, Simon and Garfunkel would often cross their parts so that you could only tell by careful listening who was singing what at a given moment. Williams puts it well when describing the elegant simplicity of their sound: “You became mesmerized by it, by just that lack of things going on.”