Preserving an art form: the Barbershop Harmony Society
What is this thing called the Barbershop Harmony Society, and why do so many people have so much fun as part of it?
CELEBRATING AN AMERICAN MUSICAL ART FORM FOR MORE NEARLY 90 YEARS: The Barbershop Harmony Society
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, 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 indeed.
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 Kenosha, Wisconsin. 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. Much of the material in the museum is currently in storage awaiting the move of Society headquarters to new facility in Nashville. A professional staff administers a wide range of programs and services, including:
The Harmonizer, a bi-monthly magazine for members
Digital mastering of audio and video productions
Music publishing services, with more than 900 barbershop arrangements in print
Convention planning for meetings attended by 8,000-11,000 members annually
Harmony Marketplace, a merchandise operation that grossing more than $1 million annually
A traveling staff of music and membership specialists who conduct numerous workshops and clinics throughout North America
Education programs such as Harmony University, a week-long school attended by more than 600 singers annually
Barbershop in the community
Barbershoppers actively support community service projects and local charities, and contribute many man-hours singing for churches, schools, and hospitals. In addition, most of the organization's chapters stage at least one annual show, bringing featured quartets and choruses to the community. Harmony Foundation is the Society’s fundraising arm. It coordinates an Annual Fund campaign to support special projects of the Barbershop Harmony Society, including Directors College scholarships, Harmony Explosion Camps, Heritage Hall Museum of Barbershop Harmony. The Foundation also maintains an endowment program and oversees grant education and services. With such a wide range of activities to enjoy, it's easy to understand why Barbershop Harmony Society members tend toward long terms of membership. Although most men join for the music, most stay in the organization because of the strong, deep friendships they build by raising their voices in song with other "congenial men of good character."