Barbershop timeline

Barbershop - a potted history

      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.  

What about barbershop now?

Listen to a series of Harmony UK podcasts by our chorus member John Beesley, dedicated to the exciting world of contemporary British barbershop harmony singing.
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 1 - November 2015
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 2 - March 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 3 - June 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 4 - July 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 5 - September 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 6 - October 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 7 - November 2016
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 8 - May 2017
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 9 - June 2017
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 10 North West special - October 2017
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 11 European part 1 - November 2017
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 11 European part 2 - November 2017
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 12 - January 2018
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 13 Sweet Adelines convention - May 2018
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 14 Everyone in harmony - July 2018
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 15 from 40th BABS Harmony College - Sept 2018
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 16 - December 2018
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 17 - February 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 18 Fuse 2019 - April 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 19a BABS Convention part 1 - May 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 19b BABS Convention part 2 - May 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 20 IES 2019 Manchester - July 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 21  Arrangers - November 2019
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 22  Scotland special - March 2020
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 23  Lockdown - April 2020
  Harmony UK Podcast Edition 24  The Home Front - May 2020

More special feature podcasts can be heard at

Harmony College

Harmony College is the biggest educational event in the Barbershop Calendar here in the UK. Almost 400 people were at the 2015 event held at Nottingham University. One of our basses, John, was there for his first time. Listen to his audio postcard:

 Harmony College - 2015 postcard
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