Quartets competing in New York’s Central Park in 1934
Although Samuel Pepys wrote of men singing in barber’s shops as far back as the 17th century, the style of four-part harmony singing that we know as barbershop emerged during the late 19th century in the USA. The rise of vaudeville theatre and the popularity of touring minstrel shows turned harmony quartets into the rock stars of their day. For a few cents their audiences could buy their favourite popular songs as sheet music, and they gathered to sing them in their homes, on street corners, and even in barber’s shops.
The spread of recorded music and the advent of radio in the 1920s pushed barbershop quartets out of the mainstream. But as nostalgia for better times took hold during the Great Depression their fortunes revived. In 1934 the City of New York held the first in an annual series of quartet contests in Central Park, which drew huge crowds until the 1960s. Four years later in the American Mid-West, a group of enthusiasts founded what came to be known as the Barbershop Harmony Society. The society drew up rules and codes to define the music as an art-form. They banned the use of musical instruments, which had accompanied some of the earlier quartets. In its first years the Society even tried to prevent quartets from singing Sweet Adeline, one of the most popular close harmony songs from the heyday of Barbershop. They said they considered it to be disreputable. The first barbershop organisation for women was established in 1945, and with a delightful sense of irony the founders decided to name their group “Sweet Adelines”.
It wasn’t until two decades later that the first British enthusiasts began to make their mark. The UK’s first chorus, The Crawley Chordsmen, began singing together in 1964. Ten years later the British Association of Barbershop Singers was founded, and Capital Chorus was formed in West London in 1984. Today there are at least 60 choruses for men affiliated to BABS. There are many choruses for women too – they belong to one of two separate organisations, the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS) or Sweet Adelines International (SAI)
So what happened to quartets?
Many people still sing in quartets, although most are also members of a barbershop chorus. The choruses emerged from the early quartet competitions held by the revivalists. The trouble was that singers became bored while waiting for their turn to perform, and started to pass the time by banding together in larger groups to sing a few songs. The fact is that barbershop choruses were completely unknown when the music was at the peak of its popularity. In trying to preserve what they considered to be the old traditions, the revivalists of the 1930s created, by accident, something entirely new.
If you’re keen to know more then we can recommend a couple of very good books on the subject :-
Four Parts No Waiting; A Social History of American Barbershop Quartets by Gage Averill. A fascinating account of the development of Barbershop harmony singing from its roots in the music of the mid 19th century to the present day.
The British Barbershopper by Liz Garnett. Liz considers what it means to be a barbershop singer. She traces the origins of the Barbershop style in Britain, and its relationship with other forms of choral music.