Barbershop Quartets: Then and Now


Anyone who knows me well knows I love a cappella music. Having been in QC’s a cappella group the iTones for 3 years and having served as president for one, I owe much of the high points of my college career to this art form. From collegiate a cappella to a solid European choir in a church with near perfect acoustics, everything about singing with a group of people using just our voices makes my day.

One of the most intimate iterations of this kind of music is barbershop. Yes, like a barbershop quartet. You may recognize the art form from Disney World’s Dapper Dans or Jimmy Kimmel’s barbershop skits. Barbershop at its core is a group of four or more people (usually men, but women barbershop quartets are becoming more and more popular today) that sing in tight harmonies nearly perfectly tuned to each other. A typical barbershop arrangement consists of a bass, baritone, lead and tenor (from bottom to top). These 4 parts balance each other out and hit every chord with precision and care, making the chords “ring.”

I dabbled with barbershop in high school and a little bit of college. I used to attend the rehearsals of an international award-winning barbershop chorus. At that point I saw why it’s such a homey art form to be a part of. Everyone has a similar interest and teaches those that are less experienced. Because of the spontaneity of it all, you can easily learn well known songs (there are a few called Polecats that every barbershop singer is expected to know) and sing with complete strangers.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if it was all roses and daisies. Upon becoming a fan and watching tons of videos of contemporary barbershop online, one thing always irked me: Where are all the black people? 

 

Westminster Chorus, 2015 International Barbershop Convention Champions.

Westminster Chorus, 2015 International Barbershop Convention Champions. [source]

As I knew it, barbershop was originated and popularized by African-Americans hanging out at actual barbershops and singing chords together. These songs originated from black folk songs, hymns and psalms. Groups like the American Four, the Hamtown Students, and countless others lost in history founded this music genre as, like pretty much everything black folks did back then, an expression of their intense emotions incited by the oppression they faced.

The Mills Brothers. [source]

The Mills Brothers. [source]

So how did white men take over this personalized and sentimental art form? In 1877, the first phonograph (or gramophone) was introduced by Thomas Edison, the Steve Jobs of his day. This introduced the music industry as we know it today. After the phonograph, music could be recorded, played back, and sold. Now, if you were a white person in 1877, one, you made up most of the population, two, you therefore had an important place in the economy, and three, you likely were not too fond of black people. Just like any industry with a successful marketing team, the newly-budding music industry wanted to sell music that would appeal to their largest customer demographic: white people. To do this, white barbershop quartets were the only ones publicized in order to boost sales. People are reluctant to support authentic pro-black music today, let alone a few years after slavery was abolished. In a matter of years, barbershop music was appropriated from a celebration of the black experience to a fun pastime stolen by white elitists. To beat a dead horse, white men even imitated black barbershop quartets by performing barbershop music in blackface. Eventually, the standard for barbershop music became a group of four white men, often wearing pinstriped suits and funny hats.

This standard persists today. The biggest barbershop organization in the country and maybe the world, Barbershop Harmony Society, is a product of this shift. Quartets and choruses from this organization make some of the best a cappella music out there today, but there is very little to none representation and/or appreciation for the black music and artists that started the genre.

Much like my post about the history of Central Park last week, I am aiming to explain how deep racism runs in our society behind the scenes. There are countless ways that black culture and history were erased from cultural memory in favor of the images of caucasians. Heck, there are things black people have done that was credited to a white person that no one is aware of. Of course, I still love barbershop music. To me, good music is good music. But knowing who deserves credit for it is equally as important as enjoying it in my eyes.

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