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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How did barbershop quartets get started?


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Why: I am watching "The Sing-Off" (even though they kicked off the best group last night).

Answer: Like lots of other music, it started with African-Americans.

Immigrants to the new world brought with them a musical repertoire that included hymns, psalms, and folk songs. These simple songs were often sung in four parts with the melody set in the second-lowest voice. Minstrel shows of the mid-1800s often consisted of white singers in blackface (later black singers themselves) performing songs and sketches based on a romanticized vision of plantation life. As the minstrel show was supplanted by the equally popular vaudeville, the tradition of close-harmony quartets remained, often as a "four act" combining music with ethnic comedy that would be scandalous by modern standards.

The "barbershop" style of music is first associated with black southern quartets of the 1870s. The African influence is particularly notable in the improvisational nature of the harmonization, and the flexing of melody to produce harmonies in "swipes" and "snakes." Black quartets "cracking a chord" were commonplace at places like Joe Sarpy's Cut Rate Shaving Parlor in St. Louis, or in Jacksonville, Florida, where, black historian James Weldon Johnson writes, "Every barbershop seemed to have its own quartet."

Wikipedia says:

"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 neighborhood barber shops, among them the New Orleans Humming Four, the Southern Stars and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartette." The affinity of [the Mills'] 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 first written use of the word "barbershop" in reference to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of the song, "Play That Barbershop Chord."

Here is a white lady singing that song in The Good Old Summertime (1949).
Source: A Capella Foundation

The More You Know: According to the Barbershop Harmony Society:
Barbershop music features 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.
The barbershop quartet at Disneyland is called The Dapper Dans.

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