Tell Me More: Making A Cappella Groove

Deke Sharon—the father of contemporary a cappella—talks in a Tufts podcast about creating harmony through harmony
Deke Sharon directing Tufts student singers on stage
“A cappella is a part of the human DNA,” said Deke Sharon, here directing Tufts singers. “I am hoping to give other people that experience and spread what I call harmony through harmony.” Photo: Anna Miller
May 15, 2019

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Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

Deke Sharon, A91, often called “the father of contemporary a cappella,” has made it his life’s work to bring vocals-only music to the masses. As director of the Tufts ensemble the Beelzebubs in the early 1990s, his experimental take on a Peter Gabriel song—with voices standing in for instruments—inspired a new era in a cappella performance. Sharon has also helped popularize a cappella through movies like Pitch Perfect, television, and even Broadway.

Earlier this year, Sharon was back at Tufts for a residency where he coached nine singing groups across the campus, culminating in a first-of-its-kind all-Tufts a cappella concert. In between rehearsals, he sat down to talk about his career and his mission to create harmony through harmony.

Recommended links: Deke Sharon website / Twitter / Facebook / “How to Sing a Love Song”

TRANSCRIPT

HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

Deke Sharon, often called “the father of contemporary a cappella,” has made it his life’s work to bring vocals-only music to the masses. As director of the Tufts ensemble the Beelzebubs in the early 1990s, his experimental take on a Peter Gabriel song—with voices standing in for instruments—inspired a new era in a cappella performance. Sharon has also helped popularize a cappella through movies like Pitch Perfect [music from movie], television, and even Broadway.

Earlier this year, Sharon was back at Tufts for a residency where he coached nine singing groups across the campus, culminating in a first-of-its-kind all-Tufts a cappella concert. In between rehearsals, he sat down with Julie Flaherty to talk about his career and his mission to create harmony through harmony. Let’s listen in. [music from movie]

JULIE FLAHERTY: So a cappella has had some really high-profile moments in the last decade. And not coincidentally you have been involved in all of them. You did the vocal arrangements for all three Pitch Perfect movies, including Pitch Perfect 2, which was the highest-grossing musical comedy of all time. You were executive producer, coach, and music arranger on the NBC singing competition show The Sing-Off, which made stars of the group the Pentatonix. And then a couple years ago, just for fun, you did the arrangements for the very first a cappella musical on Broadway—a show called In Transit. So, you have a good perspective on: Is a cappella more popular than it’s ever been?

DEKE SHARON: Yes, it is. More popular than it has been in the past… I’m gonna say, 100 years. But the bottom line is, a cappella was at the core of all human expression in prehistoric times. Before people spoke, they almost certainly sang. And like birds and crickets and whales, there was communication between people before we had language, before we had writing. And then, throughout human history, traditions all around the world have at their core—musical traditions have, at their core—a cappella. So, you can go to South Africa, you can go to Taiwan, you can go to Native Americans or in South America, and there is an a cappella tradition, a tradition of singing that’s at the core of their own music.

And even throughout Western music, in the year 1000, Guido d’Arezzo created our five-lined staff to notate a cappella, to notate Gregorian chant. And if you think about sea shanties and you think about barbershop music and you think about original gospel and Southern gospel and doo-wop music—there’s just so many different traditions of a cappella that have persisted alongside human culture in a long musical tradition. It’s just recently in the past 100 years, or maybe 80 years, that communal singing has dropped off and a cappella disappeared for a while. So I’m just trying to get it back to where it was.

FLAHERTY: So what are the signs that it’s popular now? I mean, are more people forming groups?

SHARON: It’s the number of articles. People magazine is really all we’re looking at for—no, I’m kidding. Number of groups: that’s a definite marker. And the college a cappella scene started 100 years ago, a little more. With the Whiffenpoofs at Yale, and it trickled through the Ivy League and some other schools in the area, like Tufts, which I understand was invited to be an Ivy and chose not to, which I very much like.

And by the time I came on to the scene in the middle of the eighties, into the early nineties, and sang in the Tufts Beelzebubs, there were about 200, maybe 250 college a cappella groups out there. Now we have 3,000—that I know of. It could be 3,500; it could be 4,000. They’re growing so quickly, and that’s just the college groups.

The number of high school programs that have moved to being a cappella groups or contemporary a cappella groups from being vocal jazz or show choir or classical choral or all these different styles—or at least are embracing it. And now middle-school groups are doing it.

And you’re seeing all these pro groups out there. Pentatonix is a great example. They’ve got more followers on YouTube than Beyoncé. And they fill stadiums now. [music from Pentatonix]

FLAHERTY: So, you and I went to college at about the same time, and when I was in college, there was this stigma, and I say this with all affection…

SHARON: No, bring it on. Bring it on.

FLAHERTY: … the stigma around a cappella—basically, that it’s kinda geeky and the people who do it take it a little too seriously. So is that stigma gone? Or have people just embraced that geekiness?

SHARON: I think a little bit of both. Obviously, when you have huge movies and television series and rock stars at the top of the charts that are singing a cappella, it can’t be all that nerdy. But I think also culture has embraced the nerd.

In the 1980s, there was Revenge of the Nerds and this whole idea that, like, either you’re cool or you’re a nerd—there’s no combination. And slowly over time, people have realized, like, the nerds are ruling the earth—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. And all the cool kids in high school are now trying to get gigs at Google, right? So it’s nerddom is really a measure of how much somebody is deeply committed to and in love with a particular topic. So, there are comic book nerds and there are computer science nerds and engineering and a cappella. But being deeply in love with something is no longer nearly the stigma that it used to be.

FLAHERTY: And I have a friend who’s involved in a cappella and he says he goes to competitions now and there’ll be beautiful women dressed to the nines strutting around like they’re Beyoncé. So, there is definitely—there’s choreography involved in routines now.

SHARON: Oh, yeah.

FLAHERTY: It’s just much more, I guess, glamorous than it was.

SHARON: Yeah, and it’s not like a cappella is, all the sudden—for the first time, like I said, in human history—being exciting. Barbershop music was the contemporary a cappella of its day 100 years ago. Fifty years ago, doo-wop was huge on all the street corners from D.C. up to Boston. You’d have people singing under streetlamps, looking for an echo down in the subway, and that was super-cool. So, a cappella is not just nerdy college kids anymore. We’re getting back to it being the people’s music, which is what it should be.

FLAHERTY: So, let’s talk about how you got to be called “the father of contemporary a cappella.”[Deke Sharon singing “Summertime”] You’ve been singing in front of audiences since you were five and in a church choir. Then you were touring with a different group at age nine. Is that right?

SHARON: Yeah, the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus. Yeah, I joined that and was the youngest member. So I was this tiny little towhead in the corner and the other kids were older and bigger than me and kind of interested in girls and I had no interest whatsoever. So I’d be, like, at the opera Turandot or whatever, with Pavarotti, they’d all be flirting with the chorus’ girls and I’d be sitting on the fourth floor in a big costume trunk reading Encyclopedia Brown.

FLAHERTY: As you should have been.

SHARON: As I should have been.

FLAHERTY: And then in high school, I believe it was The Music Man

SHARON: Yep, it was.

FLAHERTY: And being the head of the barbershop quartet in that…

SHARON: Yeah, that’s right.

FLAHERTY: ... that introduced you to the joys of four-part harmony.

SHARON: I fell in love with barbershop. It’s such a tremendous, fantastic vocal style. And it’s tough. And so, I was the lead in the barbershop quartet, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in charge of it, although I was. The lead is the second tenor part. The melody is sung there, and the tenor is above, and the baritone and bass are below. And that barbershop quartet was such a fun experience that, even though we were done with the musical at the end of my freshman year, I just kept it going all four years, and started to learn to arrange as a result of the fact that I wanted to sing other music other than barbershop. I wanted to do a Beatles tune. I wanted to do Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” So I just got out some notation paper and figured out how to arrange out of necessity.

FLAHERTY: And then you came to Tufts as an undergrad in part because you could study at the New England Conservatory, which you did.

SHARON: Correct.

FLAHERTY: And get a liberal arts education at Tufts.

SHARON: A great liberal arts education, yes.

FLAHERTY: But it was mostly because you wanted to join the storied Tufts a cappella group the Beelzebubs, right?

SHARON: True. That is correct. They all were very high on my list of things that I wanted to do. I wanted a true conservatory experience. I wanted a great liberal arts education. And I really wanted to be in the Beelzebubs. I wanted to go to Beelzebub University. [Beelzebubs sing “Magical Mystery Tour”]

FLAHERTY: And so, you tried out and they were like, “Oh, thank god, you have come.” They just embraced you right away, right?

SHARON: I wish it were so easy. I had to audition for the group three times. I was arranging. I knew my voice. I’d been singing since I was young. I’d been on stage a ton. I felt like my whole life and career were leading up to this moment. And I went into that audition guns blazing, expecting everyone there to have perfect pitch. I just wanted to show them that I knew my voice and I could sight-sing perfectly and all this kinda stuff. And I honestly scared them away. They called me “overzealous.” They were, like, worried, “This kid’s like way too into this thing.”

And it was funny because back then the Bubs were the rock stars on campus, more than the football team, more than anything. And yet there was kind of this tone within the group like, “Well, yeah, I’m in the Bubs and I love to sing, but I don’t really like a cappella. I’m cooler than that” kind of a thing.

So to have someone come in and be, like, “No, a cappella’s awesome,” I think was a little off-putting to them, honestly. And I had to audition a second time. And I convinced my roommate at the time—I moved into the arts house, and he was also in the double-degree program—I convinced him to join. He was, like, “I don’t know if I really want to do this.” And he got in and I didn’t. Because still they were like, “This kid’s still way too into it.” So, if you audition more than three times you don’t get in, they’re never gonna take you. It was clear.

So for my third audition I was, like, “What am I gonna do to get in this group?” And I said, “I’ve got to pretend like I don’t care.” So I walked in the door and they were like, “So, Deke, what song do you want to sing?” And I was, like, “I don’t know. What do you want me to sing?” “No, you mean you didn’t prepare a solo?” I was, like, “No, but you just pick a song and I’ll sing it.” The whole time I just acted like I didn’t care. And they took me. And then I became music director.

FLAHERTY: So, it’s a great story. So what’s the moral there? Is the moral “You gotta be cool to get what you want” or …?

SHARON: Well, the moral is persistence, I think. That’s what I teach my children. It’s what I teach so many students that I end up working with. I think, in our culture, there’s such a sense of focusing and knowing what you’re good at, and then don’t do the other stuff, right?

I think that people who really want something need to keep going for it. And I’ll have people say, like, “I want to go to Tufts University, but I don’t know if I’ll get in with my grades.” I’m, like, “Oh, okay, so if you don’t get in the first time, reapply.” And they’re, like, “But, you know, but if they don’t take me…” I was like, “Right, so do you really want to go to Tufts?” “Yes.” “More than any place else?” “Yes.” I’m, like, “Good. Then apply again. And maybe go and study some classes at the Sorbonne or go to University of Sydney and learn more stuff and travel the world and continue to study, and then you go back to Tufts. Maybe you show up every month in the admissions department office and you check in again and you say, like, ‘Hi, I’m still here.’” You know what I mean?

So that kind of persistence is at the core of so many success stories. And I just hope people take it to heart.

FLAHERTY: So, you persisted. And then when you did get in, you proceeded to change a cappella forever.

SHARON: Forever and ever.

FLAHERTY: Forever and ever.

SHARON: It wasn’t the—I didn’t intend to. I mean I was glad that I did. But no, I just wanted to sing the latest hits on the radio. And back then, a cappella was still very shoo by doo-wop, kind of late doo-wop style. And I wanted to do Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and all these songs you couldn’t do. And it was actually the song “In Your Eyes,” after seeing Say Anything, I bought the CD at Tower Records, brought it back to my room, and I just couldn’t make it work with traditional vowels and syllables.

So I treated the entire thing like an orchestral score. And I did an eleven-part arrangement for a group that normally sang in four or five parts. I didn’t even have voice parts next to them. I put the guys’ names. Five of them were doing different percussion sounds with their mouths: A shaker [shaker sounds] … And a talking... [percussion sounds] with high hats. I taught other guys how to be synthesizers with their mouths [synthesizer sounds], like, doing all these overtones. And they were like, “Dude, what are you doing?” They were like, “You’re nuts.” I was, like, “Can we just try it? Can we just try it?”

And we sang it that weekend up in Maine and the audience went ballistic. And I was, like, “Maybe I’m on to something.” And that was what my senior year was. And the album that we made that year, Foster Street, in 1991, after just two months of selling it, sold something like 5,000 copies just at local college concerts and stuff like that, which was unheard of.

And so, I was, like, “I have lightning in a bottle and I want people to have these wonderful experiences singing that I did,” so I went and started the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America and my group, the House Jacks. And the National Championship of College A Cappella and the Best of College A Cappella recording albums, and newsletters and festivals. And everyone laughed at me and they were, like—even my choral director—my high school choral director—the person you think would be most supportive of a career in vocal music, literally told other people, “It’s like Deke’s trying to make a career out of professional tiddlywinks.” It was, like, it’s this little, like, snotty Ivy League style tradition and no one’s gonna be interested in that thing. But somehow it worked.

FLAHERTY: Yeah, now look. OK, so sell me on a cappella. You know, what makes it special? You know. I mean, I like instruments. Instruments are great…

SHARON: Oh, me, too.

FLAHERTY: …little guitar, little drum…

SHARON: Me, too. I cook and I put on bossa nova. You know what I mean? And I listen to classic rock in the car. No, it’s—there’s nothing wrong with instruments. And music, recorded music—which is largely responsible for the fact that music doesn’t exist in schools so much anymore because we don’t have to make the music ourselves—is a beautiful, wonderful, wonderful thing.

But human culture was born on the back of the interconnectedness between small tribes of people. And it’s been studied by sociologists and whatever—like, we were in hunter-gatherer groups or in small little units of fifty people or fewer. Every day at the end of the hunt, at the end of the harvest, whatever, we’d gather around and we would sing. We would raise our voices together.

A cappella is a part of the human DNA like it is for various other creatures in the animal kingdom. And we have lost that. So I am hoping to give other people that experience and spread what I call harmony through harmony. Our society is deeply bifurcated. People don’t know their neighbors. After a long day at work, they plop down on the couch and they sit in front of a screen and either they just stream Netflix or they go online and they start typing angry responses in chat groups. They feel this disconnectedness to other people and to society.

And I have the answer. We have the—it’s free. It’s easy. I mean, it takes some time. You have to learn how to sing. But you can join the local church choir. You can join the local community choir. You can get together with some friends and sing Christmas carols during the holidays. There’s so many different ways in which you can sing.

But people are afraid to and they think they’re tone-deaf, and they are not tone-deaf. There are only, like, three tone-deaf people on the planet. They’re just inexperienced in the same way that if someone that had never seen a basketball before, they’d never really picked it up and spent any time shooting free throws, they’d be terrible at it. Our vocal chords are just muscles, and everybody is able to sing. We’ve just lost it as a culture.

FLAHERTY: So yeah, this philosophy you have—this harmony through harmony—the idea is that if people sing together in groups, they’ll be better people. They’ll learn teamwork, they’ll learn self-reliance…

SHARON: Much better. Yes.

FLAHERTY: …they’ll meet people and get to know people that maybe they wouldn’t have known otherwise. And so my question is, how is that any different than being on a soccer team together or doing a group project in school together or something? How is this special?

SHARON: There’s something incredibly powerful about the connectedness of the human voice. And there’s a reason that people don’t play soccer in church; they sing in church, right? There’s a reason that, at the core of so many religious ceremonies and so many social ceremonies that people sing together, be it, you know, a patriotic song or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” And you see those huge soccer matches, right? In soccer, what do they do in the stands? They sing. They chant their team song and there’s this incredible power of voices lifted together in song.

There can be a lot of lessons that can be taught in other ways. The thing is, when you’re playing sports in the end, if you win or you lose, the balance of power in the universe, nothing has changed. But if you’re in an audience and you sing, first of all, you do it well, you always win. And second of all, you can reach people in a deeply powerful, emotional way. Maybe it’s a twelve-year-old girl who’s feeling bullied and doesn’t have friends. And you convince her to join choir. And it’s been proven, kids who sing in school, they get higher grades, they have a built-in social network, they’re bullied less, they stay in school longer, they end up being more successful long-term. Suicide rates are down. The whole thing. Like, it is literally a life-changing experience.

And I’ve also had people come up to me who say things like, “I just lost my husband and I have not left home for six months. And I have not been able to feel joy until tonight.” And that gift that we can give other people through our voices is so deeply powerful.

When I was in the Bubs, like, there were a lot of guys in the group I never would have been friends with. I never—it was music and theater nerd is living downhill and the guys in the frats and the computer science guys... I just never would have hung out with them. But the power of diversity that we tout so much and we try to teach so much is rarely reflected and exemplified in a more powerful way than in an a cappella group, where you need people with high voices and low voices. You need people with powerful, rich rocky voices and light fluty boy-choir voices.

And the more diversity you have in a group, the more you’re able to do with that group. And the Pitch Perfect movies definitely reflect that. You see it on The Sing-Off as well. Like you want the different colors and personalities. That’s why Pentatonix is so great: five very different people with different voices that are constantly changing and morphing and bringing and breathing new life into the song. [Pentatonix song]

FLAHERTY: So you’ve put a lot of energy into figuring out how to replicate instruments with the human voice, and you actually even—I think online people can go and learn how to make some of these sounds.

SHARON: Yes.

FLAHERTY: Can you entertain us with a few?

SHARON: Sure, I’ll give you a few different sounds. Here’s a regular trumpet [trumpet sound]… and a muted trumpet [trumpet sound]… and trombone [trombone sound]… flute [flute sound]… electric guitar [electric guitar sound]… harmonica [harmonica sound]… and so on. Yeah. And of course, people are all very familiar with vocal percussion, which back when I was experimenting with it and added it first to the Beelzebubs and then the House Jacks, the rock band that I started right out of college—it was the first rock band without instruments, the first group with designated vocal percussionists—it was very different from beatbox in the early days.

Beatboxing back then was, like, [beatboxing sound], like the Fat Boys. It was this fun, playful rhythmic vocalism that worked well with rap music. But you couldn’t have put that behind “In Your Eyes” or “Cashmere” by Led Zeppelin or “Comfortably Numb.” Vocal percussion is about imitating the sound of instruments, which is why that clean hi-hat, that [makes sound] that’ll happen or the kind of more rock snare… that  [makes sound] sound is used in vocal percussion. Whereas in beatboxing you get much more of that [makes sound] kind of a sound [makes sound]… that kind of a side stick or that electronic-sounding snare.

FLAHERTY: You worked on all the Pitch Perfect movies, coaching many voices on screen and off screen, including stars like Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. So, tell me some of the juicy behind-the-scenes stuff that everyone should know.

SHARON: Well, there’s one important piece of information, which is there’s another Tufts grad that worked right alongside me, Ed Boyer, who was also in the double-degree program, who was also in the Beelzebubs as music director eleven years after me, I think. And he has become the preeminent audio engineer and producer for many a cappella recordings, including he does all the mixing for Pentatonix. So, he works right alongside me; it’s not just me there.

And so Rebel Wilson, she’s so fun. She came in and she was singing “Turn the Beat Around” in a scene in Pitch Perfect. And so she’s singing her part. [singing] And it just—there was nothing she could do to make it funny. And I was like, “Rebel, Rebel, Rebel, this isn’t working. Can you be more wild? Can you play...” and every time it just didn’t really work. And I was, like, “OK, let’s say you’re out singing karaoke, how would you do it?” And she went [singing] with her, like, over the top, like, Australian accent. And I was like, “That’s it. That’s perfect.” And she was like, “Well, Deke, I’m supposed to be American in this movie.” And I was, like, “Wait a minute.” And I just ran to the director and I, like, opened his door really quickly and I said, “Jason?” He says, “Yeah?” I said, “Can Rebel’s character be Australian in this movie? And, like, sing and speak with an Australian accent?” He was, like, “Yeah, fine. Whatever.” I was, like, “Great, thanks.”

And ran back there and I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” And ever since then having Rebel Wilson in the recording booth is like a tornado. [Rebel Wilson singing “Turn the Beat Around”]

FLAHERTY: So in the Pitch Perfect movies there’s a character named Benji who is partly based on you.

SHARON: Yeah.

FLAHERTY: Can you describe Benji and then tell me what parts are you and what parts aren’t?

SHARON: Okay. So Benji was a character created from the nonfiction book, Pitch Perfect, which was written about three different a cappella groups, one of them being Beelzebubs, and also has a chapter about me and my role in the days of integrating vocal percussion and starting the competition that is in the movie Pitch Perfect, which is a real competition.

However, I will assure any listener out there that I had zero Star Wars posters in my room and I’ve never done magic tricks. I am just a normal a cappella nerd, not an a cappella/Star Wars/magic nerd.

But it was really cute, ‘cause when Ben Platt heard this he came up to me and he’s, like, “Dude, am I you?” And I was, like, “I don’t do magic tricks.” And Ben Platt is just the most delightful wonderful human beings on earth. His actual personality is not a character or an exaggeration. I’ve never seen him in a bad mood. I’ve never seen him be anything but gracious and sweet and kind, which is why I think so many people connected with his performance in Dear Evan Hansen. And just love him. ‘Cause he is incredibly lovable.

FLAHERTY: So looking ahead, what is next for a cappella? Are we going to be seeing more original songs for a cappella groups? Or what’s the exciting stuff that you’re seeing?

SHARON: I think all of it. So, the big push early on was, like, how do we figure out how to use our voices in this way and create music that’s compelling and as full as current popular instrumental music with just our voices? So, once we unlock that and figure it out, OK, now how do we popularize this? How do we get it out there?

We’ve had television. We’ve had movies, both scripted and unscripted, between Glee and The Sing-Off. Okay, so that’s there. And then how do we popularize specific groups to get them out there? And then YouTube comes along, and we’re able to get all those groups out there. So now there are a lot of pro groups and there’s a way for younger groups to get out there.

And that’s exciting. Plus, so many college a cappella groups and high-school groups. Even middle-school groups now. There are some incredible middle-school groups that have got, like, twelve- to fourteen-year olds. Each week I’m in a different festival and I’m working with different people and I’ll often on my Facebook page just, like, post these videos. And they’ll get so many views ‘cause people are, like, “Can you believe these are twelve-year olds up there?” And they’re singing some current pop song and it’s just stunning.

I think, for me, the thing that I want to spend the rest of my life doing—and look, if the media calls, I’m not gonna say no. If somebody says, “We want to do a film score and it’s all a cappella,” I’m there ‘cause no one’s ever done that before. Just like the first a cappella musical on Broadway—so much fun, and a great way to popularize and continue to push the boundaries.

But what I want to do is get “people people” singing. Not professional musicians: people, community choirs, individuals who stopped singing when they were in school and now they’re empty-nesters and they’re looking for something to do. School programs, like, “Well, we don’t have a lot of money, we’re in the city or we’re a rural school and we just don’t have the funding for all these instruments and stuff.” I’m, like, “Great, you don’t need instruments. You need one person and a pitch pipe. Let’s go. Let’s do this.”

And any time someone’s starting a new program I send them free arrangements. If you’re listening to this, if you’re starting a new group, you’re starting—you want whatever, I will send you music for free. Because I want to help you get started; first one’s free. It’s, like, I’m the dealer. I’m the a cappella dealer.

But the world really does become a more harmonious place when people sing together. And you find people who were on different sides of the ideological spectrum, political spectrum, social spectrum, and they not only connect with each other and change their own relationships, but then when they’re in front of people, they change the perception of it.

Memphis is still a very segregated town. It’s a town with a number of problems that stem from the Civil War and Reconstruction, never completely creating any kind of equality. And there’s a group that I helped create there called Delta-Cappella. And the person who started it went to Harvard and loved a cappella and he wanted to keep singing. He’s a jeweler there, and very successful. And he took—when we cast this group initially it was like, we’ll take this person who is right out of college and we’ll take this person who flips fries and burgers, and we’ll take this person who was homeless last month.  

And their group looks like Memphis. And their members are often ranging from nineteen to seventy-five in age, and literally cut across all races and backgrounds [Delta-Cappella singing “Walking in Memphis”]. And it’s great that they’re all friends and they get together and do weekend retreats and whatever. But it’s even more powerful when they go out into Memphis and they sing songs, because they say something about community and society that you can talk about and write articles about and make movies about all the time, but when you see it, in actuality, with real people, that’s when it sends a deep powerful message.

And they have said time and again they get that comment from people, “Wow. I had tears in my eyes watching you signing up there. It’s the dream that I’ve had for this town for the past fifty years. And finally, for the first time, I’ve seen it coming true.”

FLAHERTY: So this question might be a little hard. Can you tell me something not related to a cappella…

SHARON: Nope. I can’t. That’s it. Sorry. No, of course. Yeah, of course.

FLAHERTY: Can you tell me something that people might not know about you?

SHARON: Ooh, well, let’s see. I like to create in a lot of different ways. So I love cooking and I love gardening. I do love to read, also. I read up to about ninety books a year. Constantly reading and learning—because I want to know more about the world. And the more I understand about the world and about people and about society and about culture and psychology and physiology and all that, the better I am able to help reach them through music.

FLAHERTY: If I were to put you on the spot and say I need you to sing one song right now, a favorite song, what would you sing?

SHARON: Oh, well, when I’m on the Tufts campus, there’s only one song I would ever want to sing: “Tuftonia’s Day.” [singing] Come on, sing along, everybody. You know it, come on. And in fact, that’s one of the things that I rail against because 100 years ago, everybody knew that song. Because everybody sang. And now nobody knows it unless you’re in one of the a cappella groups on campus and you get to sing it at orientation or an alumni event.

So part of what I’m really trying to do is get back to a world where everybody will know the school fight song and be able to sing it together. So, two, three, four. [singing] Come on everybody. [sings “Tuftonia’s Day”]

FLAHERTY: Deke Sharon, thank you so much for talking with us today.

SHARON: It is my pleasure to be here. It’s so great to be back. Go Jumbos.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at tellmemore@tufts.edu. That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Anna Miller, Eugene Kong, Dave Nuscher, and Steffan Hacker. This episode’s introduction was written by Julie Flaherty. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Amanda Rowley and the Tufts Music Department. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time – be well.

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