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Owen Clifton “OC” Cash – Our Founder

Apostle of Harmony
February 13, 1892–August 15, 1953

A man who symbolized an important phase of an era is gone. The era was the 1890s and 1900s into the first World War; the phase was informal harmony singing of popular music. That music is important today because it reveals musical customs of an earlier era while its lyrics carry much of the thought and many events of those more tranquil days. Also by that time informal harmony singing had evolved into a distinct American pattern that was basically the same wherever four or more men able or willing to carry four parts got together.

Owen Clifton Cash was molded by those times and by the life in the small towns in the Southwest where he spent his most impressionable years. Longing to restore the popular songs and singing customs of his youth and early manhood, songs and customs which were nearing the vanishing point in 1938, that year he headed a local movement in Tulsa to attempt to revive them. Within ten years he saw the results of that localized intent impressed indelibly across great cities as well as small towns of two nations in a different atomic age. The singing patterns were preserved along with the songs.

The Harmonizer of December, 1943 was dedicated to O. C. Cash by a foreword which said in part:

“Only rarely does America produce a son with the ability to open the nation’s eyes to what it has been missing in simple and wholesome pleasure that is easily attainable. Less often does such a one have the generosity to share his vision beyond his immediate environs; the conviction, courage, and tact to win others to his thinking; and the patience backed by driving force to attain an objective which holds no pot o’ gold reward . . . Cash has done more than spread wholesome enjoyment to the early 1940s; he has furnished the means to preserve a period rich in American traditions . . . It is conceivable that his Society may in the future be the connecting link between whatever generation is current, the one preceding it, and the one to follow, as oldsters and youngsters group in harmony”.

Fifteen years and an International status, as compared with the ambitious “national” hopes in 1943, have brought thousands of members into the Society to whom Cash is merely an honored name. Widespread retelling of the events leading to the formation of SPEBSQSA and its early struggles inevitably results in misinformation and some inaccuracies. The Society is fortunate that the march of events of those days is recorded in “Keep America Singing”, the book which covers highlights of the first 10 years, and that every word was approved by Owen Cash with a brief “That’s how it was” notation.

Past President Hal Staab (also deceased) led the drive to get those early years of the Society down on paper as the participants had lived them.

The Man

The book of the Society’s ten years does not include biographical facts about the founder, therefore, it is well to set down salient ones concerning the man and his early environment as well as some of his interests apart from the now famous harmony avocation.

When Owen was about age six his Baptist-minister father took the family from northern Missouri, where the boy had been born February 13, 1892, near the tiny hamlet of Keytesville in Chariton County, on a wagon trek over the dirt roads and trails to the Southwest. After a trip comparable with crossing Africa by motor car today they arrived in Catale in the Coo-Wee-Scoo-Wee District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, to become a part of Oklahoma later. They set up housekeeping in a log house rented from an old Cherokee. Subsequently they lived in Vinita and in Blue Jacket where young Cash played in the Silver Cornet Band and began to get the feeling of baritone harmony. He graduated from Bacone College, Bacone, Okla. and was admitted to the Bar in that state in June, 1916. Next year he enrolled in the U. S. Army but was still waiting to go overseas when the First World War ended in 1919. Two years later he joined a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of Indiana as assistant tax commissioner, and in 1930 became tax commissioner of Stanolind, a Standard Oil pipe line subsidiary.

His profession as a tax lawyer led naturally into activities in the National Tax Association, the Oil Industries Information Committee, and the Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, while his public service duties included work in the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce and the Oklahoma Public Expenditures Council. More personally his affiliations included the Presbyterian Church, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Tulsa Farm Club. The Cash ranch near Talala, Okla. is today a well run producing farm property. The owner’s weekend home is replete with mementos, photographs, sketches, and souvenirs of 15 years in SPEBSQSA.

The background, the activities, and accomplishments just outlined give a picture of a man who attained much comfort and strength through his sense of material order, intellectual order, and moral order. He was a prudent man.

His wife Corinne, his daughter Betty Anne (Mrs. Eugene A. Oathout), and his sister, Miss Idress Cash who took the long rough trail with small Owen to the Cherokee Nation so long ago are justifiably proud of the one who earned the title of Good Citizen before the outside world knew him as the “Apostle of Harmony”.

Owen Cash’s prudence was something that friends and associates took for granted. In consequence in countless places he will be remembered more for his humanness and his sense of humor. At its finest that Cash humor is preserved in the name of our Society and in the title with which he endowed himself. The invitation to the original meeting at the Tulsa Club, April 11, 1938, was signed by Rupert I. Hall, “Royal Keeper of the Minor Keys” and by O. C. Cash, “Third Assistant Temporary Vice Chairman” of “The Society for Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States”. Shortly after, Propagation was changed to Encouragement and he took in all of America. Still later he headed his own title with “Founder and Permanent . . .”. The combination of the grandiose applied to such a hobby and the obvious tongue-in-cheek dig at the spreading alphabetical agencies of the New Deal smacks of Mark Twain with overtones of Will Rogers, all three of them sons of the mid-states.

During the Society’s first year he announced intentions to petition WPA (an emergency agency) for $9,999,999.99 to survey the male vocal range, nationwide. Before the first Convention-Contest in Tulsa, June 1939, he solemnly informed news reporters that Herbert Hoover, Alfred Landon, “Al” Smith, and James Farley, top names in the news of the day, would be “invited to Tulsa” to sing in a quartet.

At New Year, 1942, many Society members received a certificate from Cash raising them to the status of “Ex-Okies” since they had “harmonized successfully . . . with the famous Okie Four—World’s foremost exponents of barbershop harmony” with which quartet he sang an enthusiastic baritone.

His humor was gentle, frequently keyed to some element of self-depreciation, hardly every conceived in terms which might embarrass anyone or make the butt of the humor uncomfortable. These excerpts from The Founder’s Column in the Harmonizer are typical: After the Grand Rapids Convention-Contest, 1942, the Column carried the complaint that the judges were “deef”. “The Okies sang in the first preliminary and from all unbiased reports went over big with the audience, but just to show you how incompetent and prejudiced the judges were, one of them came rushing over and said the Okies have the honor of being the first quartet eliminated. I can’t understand it, until I found out one was a lantern maker (past pres. Embury). The continual hammering and picking away on them tin lanterns has made him deef as a board. Then there was Reagan who was an electrician by trade (Maurice Reagan is a great authority on electronics).”

Writing of a get-together in Detroit, “Huck Sinclair and me was setting around, listening to all them sweet chords and wiping our eyes and Huck said between sniffles ‘Cash, I never knowed I had so many friends or could sing so good'”.

He wrote to an out-of-town banker who had inquired about membership in the Society, “There is nothing that so quickly and effectively restores the respectability of a banker as joining up with SPEBSQSA. Because of the warm hearts and generous souls of our club the rules have been amended to allow bankers to join . . .”

In 1945 commenting upon the Sweet Adeline organization Cash said in part: “It is a shame this had to come up just when we were getting along so peacefully. I am bewildered, confused, and all messed up besides . . . hoping you are the same”.

Some of his early columns were treasures of Americana. The May 1945 Harmonizer narrates in detail how they left Missouri and landed in the Cherokee Nation, the need for schooling for the children and how his preacher-father picked out a tramp who had been kicked off a Frisco freight train and got him to teach school (where he did a perfect job of moral as well as formal education of the little pupils) until the U. S. Marshal walked into the school house one day, “Pearl handled six shooters dangling from his wide cartridge belt” and took the teacher away to finish his penitentiary sentence back East. It is Cash narration at its best, bright-hued with local coloring and brimming over with smiles.

Owen Cash and the Society 1953

What was Cash’s attitude toward the way the Society was handled after he turned the reins over to succeeding Boards and administrators, and based upon the actions of those administrators, what did he think of the organization’s future?

He followed with keen interest the many intricate phases of expansion throughout Canada as well as the States. In general he had nothing but praise for the administration of the international organization, the districts, and the chapters, though in the late ’40s he expressed some concern over the possibility that the influx of younger members, reared in a different school of harmony (“and life”), might “wean the Society away from barbershop”, particularly because of the intense competition in contests “where they’ve got to throw the book at the judges”.

He said: “It that were ever to occur, the Society might not last long because it would dump overboard the very thing that made it”, and has kept it unique and apart from other singing organizations, meaning its distinctive style of harmony with an appeal to all sorts, degrees, and ages of music appreciation.

But in 1953 he said he had ceased to worry “too much” on that point which would reduce SPEBSQSA to the level of comparison with other musical groups, professional and amateur. “We’ve got some good heads; they won’t let the Society drop what we stand for”. He listened to the plans of the Committee on Long Range Planning as expressed at the first meeting of the House of Delegates in Detroit, June, 1953, when Dean Snyder, Committee chairman, said to the House in part: “‘The old order passeth, giving way to the new’ . . . It is evidence both of our vigor and our maturity that we could make this significant change so smoothly . . .” He cited the many activities now possible to give outlets for the energy and interests of every member, including opportunities for craftsmanship in the technically musical phases of barbershop harmony. In closing he quoted Alfred Noyes: “‘If I looked farther ahead, it was because I stood on giant shoulders’. Here in the presence of our founder, our past presidents, and other ‘statesmen’ of our Society, these words have special significance”.

Afterward, when asked what he thought of the plans for the future, the founder said: “They’re sound; we’ll keep on having good leaders”; this from one who in earlier years had felt, with many other seniors, that note singing was beneath the contempt of a “true barbershopper”, but who now endorsed the technicalities of music as one of the things helpful to the Society’s advancement thus far, and necessary for the future.

The man who symbolized an important phase of an era is gone. But for his particular fitness to be the nucleus in the Society’s tentative stage of development, that phase of the 1890s and 1900s might not have been projected into this age to give untold pleasure to participants and those who love to hear harmony. Fifteen years of the Society constitute a proving period of sufficient time under varied conditions in urban and rural areas to demonstrate that popular songs sung in the traditional barbershop pattern are still important in the atomic age.

The man who was the symbol of the preservation and encouragement of such singing had faith that its traditions will be passed along by a generation twice removed from his own, though just as actively interested and even more proficient within this Society. “They won’t let the Society drop what we stand for” he said.

Deac Martin

The Harmonizer, September, 1953