Historical origins

As a result of scholarship by Lynn Abbott and Dr. Jim Henry it is now generally accepted that barbershop singing originated in African American communities in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, where barbershops were, and remain today, social gathering places. The tight, four-part harmony of the form has its roots in the black church, where close harmony has a long tradition.

As far as research can ascertain, ‘barbershop singing’ was being sung in Europe in 1607 (or even before), i.e. when English settlers founded Jamestown.

In 1597, the ‘Thomas Morley Guide to Practical Music Making’ said of barbershop singing ‘You sing you know not what. It would seem you come lately from a barbershop.’

In the 1600s before Mozart and Rossini dreamt of operatic barbers, there was written in a music publication an article that went as follows:

 The Practice of Harmony Barbers
Each barber himself, in strictest rules,
Master or Batterer in the music schools
How they, the mere musicians out do go
These ones have more than one string to their bow.

In the 1604 novel Don Quixote by Miguel D’Cevantes is a passage, "To make the business glow, they sang inventing harmonies as they go. Most are players or fun makers and teeth or blood letting sitters."

In the 1700s the barber shop was becoming less of a place to sing as fewer people wanted their hair cut. Wig making was taking over as the fashion. Perhaps this is where the African American connection comes into being.

However, a cappella was then established in the U.S.A and continued to be used right up until the demise of vaudeville and the advent of the new-fangled thing called a "wireless".

The revision of a cappella singing was taken up again when a tax lawyer, called Owen C. Cash decided that for the art to die out would be a shame. He garnered support from an investment banker called Rupert I. Hall. Both came from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Cash was a true partisan of quartet singing who advertised the fact that he did not want a cappella to fall by the way-side.

A meeting was called and at 6.30 pm on Monday April 11, 1938, 26 men gathered on the roof garden of the Tulsa Club in the Alvi Hotel. They eventually burst into four part Harmony singing. The police were called and had to ask the participants to "keep it down". The sound of their singing had reached ground level and all traffic stopped to listen, wondering where the harmonic sound was coming from.

Cash had struck a chord, albeit unwittingly, and soon, across North America, men responded in their thousands and later in the same year the ‘Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Signing in America ‘was set up.

It was known by the acronym S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. This was at a time when many institutions in the States, were in the habit of using multiple initials to denote their function.

However, S.P.E.B.S.Q.S.A. was changed to a simpler "Barbershop Harmony Society".

The first uses of the term were associated with African Americans. Henry notes that "The Mills Brothers learned to harmonize in their father's barber shop in Piqua, Ohio. Several other well-known African American gospel quartets were founded in neighborhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette.". Although the Mills Brothers are primarily known as jazz and pop artists and usually performed with instrumental accompaniment, the affinity of their harmonic style with that of the barbershop quartet is clearly in evidence in their music and most notably, perhaps, in their best-known gospel recording, "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well", performed a cappella. Their father founded a barbershop quartet, the Four Kings of Harmony, and the Mills Brothers produced at least three records in which they sang a cappella and performed traditional barbershop material.

Barbershop harmonies remain in evidence in the a capella music of the black church. The popular, Christian a cappella group Take 6 started in 1980 as The Gentleman's Estate Quartet with the tight, four-part harmony by which barbershop music is known. Early on, the quartet added a fifth harmonic line, but the group's pedigree, like barbershop music, is traceable directly to the black church--and the jazzy renditions of artists like the Mills Brothers, as well.

  • Abbott, Lynn. Play That Barber Shop Chord: A Case for the African American Origin of Barbershop Harmony. American Music 10 (1992) 289-325.
  • Henry, James Earl. The Origins of Barbershop Harmony: A Study of Barbershop's Links to Other African American Musics as Evidenced through Recordings and Arrangements of Early Black and White Quartets. Ph. D diss., Washington University, 2000


(This text was adapted from http://www.wikipedia.org/ )(GFDL)
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