Every week, a rotating crew of your favorite Popdose writers will grace the virtual pages of Kirkus Reviews Online, taking on the best — and sometimes the worst — in pop-culture and celebrity books. From coffee-table studies to quickie unauthorized bios, if it’s about show biz, it’s fair game.

This week, it’s a gritty exposÁ© that spills the beans on a mysterious subculture of young people who participate in ritualized competition, a strange blend of music and combat, where the sequin-strewn survivors will envy the dead … ah, who are we kidding? It’s a book about show choir!

New year, new semester, and fresh episodes of Glee are on the air. And if the TV show is no longer the headline-grabbing pop juggernaut that it was in its earlier seasons, we have yet to see the extent of its true, long-term cultural impact—as the gateway, for a generation of high-schoolers, into the odd and wondrous world of show choir. Because the coming of the new semester also means that, all over America, real-life high school show choirs are getting ready for competition season.

Most of the kids taking their first tentative stumbles through song-and-dance routines set to ”Carry On Wayward Son” (or ”Paparazzi,” or ”Only Girl in the World”) are unaware that they are carrying on a tradition that long predates Fox TV, Up With people, or the Fifth Dimension—a uniquely American artform with its own aesthetic, its own creation myth, its own subculture of rivalries, tribes, and factions. Mike Weaver and Colleen Hart blow the lid off this shadowy demimonde — for so long hidden in plain sight! — in their lavish text Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands: The Official History of Show Choir from Vaudeville to Glee.

I’m not sure what makes it official, exactly, but the authors have certainly made an effort to be comprehensive. Family tree-style diagrams of influential show choir directors and their protegÁ©s chart the development of different regional performance styles, which are analyzed with the passion and detail one usually sees applied to East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalries. Weaver and Hart trace the seemingly spontaneous emergence in the 1940s and 50s of what was then called ”swing choir” to the heyday of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians; largely forgotten today, Waring’s group was massively popular on stage and radio—even into the early days of television—and pioneered many of the artform’s conventions of technique, presentation, and repertoire. Likewise, the authors break down the minutiae of competition structure and scoring, in swift and breezy prose.

Sometimes, though, the authors’ drive to be definitive leads them down some winding avenues. The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan used to say that ”If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Weaver and Hart don’t go quite that far, but their recipe for pie does contain a detailed exegesis of modern apple breeds,a narrative of the spice trade from the days of Marco Polo, and a treatise on the rearing, butchery and rendering of hogs for lard (for that flaky crust, you know)…


Read the rest of this article at Kirkus Reviews!

About the Author

Jack Feerick

Critic at Large

Jack Feerick — editor, proofreader, freelance know-it-all, and three-time Jeopardy! champion — lives with his family somewhere in upstate New York, where he plays in a rock 'n' roll band and occasionally runs his mouth on local radio. You can listen to more of his work on Soundcloud, if you like.

View All Articles