2021 A to Z: Letter Q…Weird Holidays

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2021 A to Z: Letter Q

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BarberShop Quartet Day (April 11)

NYPD Barbershop Quartet photo courtesy of Barbershop Harmony Society

The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of BarberShop Quartet Singing in America was founded April 11, 1938, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Founded by Rupert I. Hall and Owen Clifton Cash, prospective members were not even required to be able to sing.  According to an article in a June 13, 1938, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Cash was quoted as saying, “All we ask is just that said prospective member THINK he can sing.” 

Roots of Barbershop Quartet – The African American tradition

In the 1880s, African American groups began improvising harmonies with popular songs, folk songs, and spirituals. Barbershop music came out of this, the first being African American singing groups in the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of the singers in these groups went on to be the originators of jazz. 

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 neighbourhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette.

Although the Mills Brothers were 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.

The Mills Brothers


Further information can be found on the Roots of Barbershop Harmony by Lynn Abbott, a jazz archivist at Tulane University, an expert on early African-American popular music and gospel quartets. Check it out!

The African-American Origins of Barbershop Music, and Why It Matters, by Dr. David Wright (February 6, 2015)

What is Barbershop Quartet?

They have four-part chords for each melody note. Male barbershop quartets consist of two tenors, a bass, and a baritone. One singer sings the melody while the other three harmonize. The lead tenor (the second tenor) sings the melody, the first tenor harmonizes above the melody, the bass sings the lowest harmonizing notes, and the baritone completes the chord. Tones make major and minor chords and the “barbershop seventh” chord. The same names are given to the singers in female groups, but the names translate to the second soprano singing lead, the lyric soprano harmonizing above, and the baritone alto and bass contralto finishing out the chord.

“Songs with understandable lyrics and easily singable melodies, whose tones clearly define a tonal center and imply major and minor chords and barbershop (dominant and secondary dominant) seventh chords that resolve primarily around the circle of fifths, while making frequent use of other resolutions.”

Sweet Adelines

Sweet Adelines International was established in 1945 by Edna Mae Anderson of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The aim was to teach and train its members in music and to create and promote barbershop quartets and other musical groups.  She gathered a group of women who wanted to participate in the “chord-ringing, fun-filled harmony” that their husbands were singing in. 

Distinctive Looks

Dapper Dans perform on Disneyland Main Street. Photo courtesy of Gene Duncan/Gene Duncan / Disney

It started with Vaudeville. Barbershop quartets were often used in front of the curtain to entertain while other acts were setting up. In order to be seen by those in the “cheap seats” they donned distinctive costumes, such as striped jackets, oversized moustaches, and straw hats.

Barbershop Quartet Music

Some traditional barbershop quartet songs include: Down by the Old Mill Stream of 1908 (Tell Taylor). The Mills Brothers recorded it on their 1959 album Greatest Barbershop Hits, as did Bing Crosby in 1939. Another famous song is Let Me Call You Sweetheart, from 1910 with words by Beth Slater Whitson, music by Leo Friedman; and Sweet Adeline, from 1903 with lyrics by Richard Husch Gerard and music by Harry Armstrong)

Get your voice warmed up! Want to start a barbershop quartet? Need some music? Check out the Barbershop Harmony Society for Free Sheet Music.

Featured image: “Q is for Quiver” from Digital Synopsis, created by UK based graphic designers Liam + Jord

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