Barbershop Harmony Society
an art form
As much a part of American culture as Old Glory, Mom and apple pie,
barbershop quartet singing is an original American musical art form.
It thrives today through the efforts of an organization originally named
the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet
Singing in America. The organization is now known as the Barbershop
Harmony Society. Though the roots of four-part harmony go back more
than a century, it was not until the near-accidental formation of the
Society that barbershop quartet music was actively promoted. The Society's
founding was whimsical, but it takes its mission to "Keep The Whole
World Singing" very seriously.
The early years
The Society was founded in 1938, when Tulsa tax attorney Owen
C. Cash ran into a fellow Tulsan, investment banker Rupert I. Hall,
in the lobby of the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City, stranded when a
storm closed the airport. Striking up a few chords (after tipping the
bellboy to find them a tenor singer), the men bemoaned the decline of
that all-American institution, the barbershop quartet. Determined to
stem that decline, they wrote a humorous letter to friends, stating:
"In this age of dictators and government control of everything,
about the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some
way supervised or directed is the art of barbershop quartet singing.
Without a doubt, we still have the right of peaceable assembly, which,
we are advised by competent legal authority, includes quartet singing.
"The writers have, for a long time, thought that something
should be done to encourage the enjoyment of this last remaining vestige
of human liberty. Therefore, we have decided to hold a songfest on the
roof garden of the Tulsa Club on Monday, April 11, 1938, at 6:30 p.m."
Twenty-six men attended that first rooftop meeting, and their numbers
swelled rapidly in subsequent meetings. At the third gathering, more
than 150 harmonizers raised such a sound that traffic stopped on the
street below. A reporter for the Tulsa Daily World chanced to pass by
the scene, sensed a good story, and put the story on the national news
wires. The lengthy original name and initials (SPEBSQSA)—founder
Cash's way of poking fun at the New Deal's "alphabet soup"
of initialed government agencies—captured the imagination of readers
coast to coast, and inquiries came pouring in. Membership grew to more
than 2,000 men in that first year, and the Society held its first convention
and national contest the following year.
The Society today.
From that whimsical start, the Barbershop
Harmony Society has grown into the world's largest all-male singing
organization, with more than 30,000 singers in more than 800 chapters
in the United States and Canada. Another 4,000 barbershoppers are members
of affiliated organizations in Australia, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland,
The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.
The Barbershop Harmony Society is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.
Harmony Hall is home to the Old Songs Library, the world's largest privately
held collection of sheet music, containing 750,000 sheets and 125,000
titles from the heyday of Tin Pan Alley. The Heritage Hall Museum of
Barbershop Harmony serves as a repository for barbershop memorabilia,
early recordings, costumes, research materials and historical documents
tracing the roots of the barbershop style.