Contrafactum

FRED singing “Who’ll take fourth place when we’re gone”

Word of the Day: In musicologist-speak, a “contrafactum” is a sacred song that has been repurposed with secular lyrics, or vice versa. Think

Alas my love you do me wrong

as opposed to

What child is this . . .

By extension, it’s any reworking—notably including parodies—of a familiar song. Which brings us to the comedy quartet FRED, identifiable by their glittery lapel pins. Reading from left to right: F (baritone), R (bass), E (lead), D (tenor).

What the heck, you may reasonably ask, does “FRED” stand for? Well, back in 1997 they told us:

F is ’cause we wait for fireworks

R is for respectability

E means very, very extraordinary

D means doing more than anyone you’ve seen before

In other words, it stands for four guys who really, really like Frank Sinatra. There’s nothing anachronistic about this. Barbershop music is all about the arrange­ments. Very few songs in the standard repertoire date from the real “barbershop” era—before 1914, let’s say. The classic “Sweet Adeline” was actually banned from competition for a number of years (this is really true) because it had picked up too many stereotypes:

Sweet Adeline (hic!), my Adeline

with accompanying clinging-drunkenly-to-lamppost business.

“What the heck does FRED stand for?” helped push the group to second place in SPEBSQSA* competion, jumping up from fourth the year before. But the next year they were back in fourth place again, leading inevitably to

Who’ll take fourth place when we’re gone?

well known to all their listeners as the old standard

Who’ll take my place in your heart when I’m gone?

It got them first place. Later experience suggests that competition judges love this gimmick. In the years leading up to 2010, comedy quartet Storm Front had placed third, sixth, and third again. Inevitably this led to

We’ve grown accustomed to third place

In between, there was Max Q, who landed in second place three times in succession. They’re not a comedy group . . . but nobody could blame them for indulging in a light rehash of “Here’s to the Losers”, leading to a 2007 win.

* Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America. The organization later changed its name to Barbershop Harmony Society (abbreviated SPEBSQSA), just in time to start handing out awards to quartets from Sweden and New Zealand alongside the traditional US-and-Canada lineup. Look it up, and you will find a caution against attempting to pronounce the abbreviation.

Ein Musikalischer Spaß

a series of open fifths

Towards the end of his career, Mozart took time off to pen Ein Musikalischer Spaß, not to be confused with the similarly motivated Musikalischer Scherz created by Johann Strauss a century or so later. That’s pen, literally. Sources say Wolfie took great care to write it out himself, because any competent copyist would auto­matically have corrected the work’s glaring errors—thereby blowing the joke.

As a joke, it falls into the “I guess you had to be there” category. Musical rules are not as strict as they were in 1787, so some “mistakes” will no longer be heard as mistakes. (The final three bars, where every instrument is playing in a different key . . . yes, probably. At least I hope so.) And court composers are not as predictable; in fact court composers are not as insert-any-adjective-you-like. I will not venture to say whether the other two targets of the lampoon have similarly changed: are today’s string players less conceited, the hornists less fond of the bottle than they were in Mozart’s day?

Better stick with parodying songs everyone knows. Or, at least, everyone in your audience. Back when FRED were just beginning their climb to the top, Chordiac Arrest nibbled at the edges of fame, hitting 5th place two years in a row. Sadly, they don't seem to have thought of a suitable We’re Number Five program. Instead they left us with the inimitable “Darkness on a Delta” set. Along with the verbal parodies, we get the line

We sent out for Chinese food

sung on a series of open fifths that had the audience in stitches.

Chordiac Arrest is no longer around, on the rock-solid grounds that at least three of their members have died. Most of their parodies are credited to baritone Lynn Hauldren, known in the Chicago area as Empire Carpet Guy. Not being from Chicago, I don’t know if this was the cultural equivalent of Cal Worthington and his dog Spot singing close harmony.