by Bill Carroll
If, on a Monday evening, you drop into the community room of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church located at 36th and Everett Streets, NW, you will hear ringing chords of barbershop harmony as the Singing Capital Chorus (SCC) grows and polishes its broadly diverse repertoire.
The SCC is the performing arm of the District of Columbia Chapter of the international Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), performing throughout the year in the District of Columbia and wider metropolitan area. The BHS began as something of a lark in 1938. Stranded by canceled flights at the Muelenback Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, two traveling salesmen struck up an acquaintance, began singing barbershop songs in the lounge and invited other guests to join in. All agreed to meet again a short time later on the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club in Oklahoma with the idea of forming a “peaceable assembly.”
Playing upon the multiple acronyms of federal government agencies sprouting in the New Deal, this peaceable assembly founded the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, or SPEBSQUA.
Within a short time SPEBSQUA grew to include chorus organizations, which sing the four-part barbershop “chords.” In 1946, residents of our area founded the District of Columbia Chapter and the Singing Capital Chorus. SPEBSQUA nominally became international when chapters singing this art form spread to Canada. Today, with chapters throughout Europe, Asia, (including) Australia and New Zealand, the renamed BHS is truly international with headquarters in the nation’s music capital, Nashville, Tennessee.
Sung in four parts, the second tenor, or “lead” carries the melody in barbershop harmony while bass, tenor and baritone singers contribute the harmony. While four part harmonies have been sung for centuries in the United States, not all chord structures are the same. Musicians generally identify barbershop harmony as unaccompanied vocal music characterized by consonant four part chords for every melody note, in a predominantly homophonic texture.
In 1925, a society musicologist wrote “Barber Shop Ballads,” a book that, with little supporting evidence, attributed the barbershop harmony style to European traditions, including Elizabethan England. However, later in the 20th Century, Lynn Abbott, a jazz archivist at Tulane University and an expert on early African-American popular music and gospel quartets, discovered overwhelming evidence that barbershop quartetting was pervasive in African-American culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
In 1992, Abbott published an article called “Play that Barbershop Chord; A case for the African-American origin of barbershop harmony,” in American Music. From numerous news articles, books and live interviews, the article irrefutably documented that barbershop harmony was pervasive in the culture of African Americans.
The Harmonizer is the official bi-monthly publication of the BHS. “The African American Roots of Barbershop (and why it matters”)” was the cover article in The Harmonizer’s January/February 2015 issue. Authored by prominent barbershopper, arranger, scholar and historian, Dr. David Wright, the article highlights the work of Lynn Abbott, links barbershop quartetting to jazz, and documents examples in the experiences of jazz legends W.C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton.
So, why does this history matter? Although, the BHS banned segregation in the early 1960s, the number of African-American men singing in our BHS quartets and choruses is small. Dr. Wright argues: “We should aggressively strive to break the race barrier and make barbershop culture more inclusive. What could be more right than to include more African Americans, whose grandfathers had such as strong role in the beginning of our music.”
Dr. Jim Henry is another BHS scholar who has written about the African-American roots of barbershop harmony. Furthering BHS inclusivity efforts, at the 2015 National Convention of the American Choral Directors Association in Salt Lake City, Henry’s international championship quartet, “Crossroads” and Nashville’s Grammy-winning gospel quartet, “Fairfield Four,” performed on stage together to tremendous acclaim. Watch them warm up:
The Singing Capital Chorus strongly supports BHS inclusivity goals. Meet us on the web at singingcapitalchorus.org and/or in the community room of St Paul’s on any Monday night.
Bill Carroll is a North Cleveland Park resident – and a tenor.