Scholars believe that the roots of barbershop singing lie in the informal music-making of Shakespearian England in the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time common folk were often schooled in four-part harmony for singing in church. These techniques were applied to popular song as well, and were brought to America by the early settlers. Here it gradually combined with aspects of African-American music (especially in the southern states), notably “call and response” (also used in sea shanties); the use of improvisation around a core theme; and the use of the “barbershop seventh” chord (major-minor seventh).
By the mid-1800s it had become common in America for simple songs to be sung in four parts with the melody set in the second-lowest voice. Minstrel shows of that time often consisted of white singers in blackface (later black singers themselves) performing songs and sketches based on a romanticised vision of plantation life. Although the minstrel show was supplanted by the equally popular vaudeville, the tradition of close-harmony quartets remained, often as a “four-act” combining music with ethnic comedy that would be scandalous by modern standards.
The “barbershop” style of music is first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s, and by the late 1800s the style as we would recognise it today had become widespread. As the name implies, it really does seem to have started in barbershops, while men were waiting for a haircut or a shave. The barbershop soon became the place to hang out, and once the barbershop had shut for the day, young men continued singing in the streets – hence the alternative names of “kerbstone” or “lamp-post” singing – or moved into the pool halls and saloons.
By the early 1900s, barbershop had become immensely popular, and no music-hall show was complete without a Barbershop Quartet. The first written use of the word “barbershop” when referring to harmonising came in 1910, with the publication of the song, “Play That Barbershop Chord”: evidence that the term was in common parlance by that time.
The influence of barbershop music on other forms of popular music has been profound. Frank Sinatra sang in a barbershop quartet before he became famous as a solo singer. The vocal quartets of bands such as those of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were also greatly influenced by the barbershop style. In the second half of the 20th century, close harmony was the hallmark of pop groups such as the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons and the Four Freshmen.
In 1938 the “Society for the Preservation and Propagation of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in the United States” was formed. The strange name and bizarre initials (SPEBSQSA) were a joke aimed at Roosevelt’s US Government programs of the time, and the organisation rebranded itself as the more modern sounding Barbershop Harmony Society in 2004. Over the years the Society has evolved into a worldwide network of men’s and women’s clubs for quartet and chorus singing and competing. Although North America remains the heart of the barbershop movement, there are active clubs in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and of course the UK.
Solent City Chorus is affiliated to the British Association of Barbershop Singers (BABS). Total UK membership of BABS is around 3,000 and the number of members has been growing steadily in recent years.
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You may also want to browse through our glossary of barbershop terms.