Why this matters
preserving barbershop for the next eighty years
The rich history of the barbershop style of music and the Barbershop Harmony Society is worth preserving.
Barbershop harmony finds its roots in a rich African-American tradition. Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, the black community harmonized recreationally the popular songs of the day as well as spirituals and folk songs, improvising harmonies according to long-standing African-American musical practice. From these sessions arose certain idiosyncratic musical qualities that are the hallmarks of what we now consider the barbershop style.
At the Barbershop Harmony Society’s founding in 1938, the vision of our founders was to preserve a social experience around a singing activity. Chapters sprang up across North America where singers could “seek haven from the burdens of their daily cares by indulging in old-fashioned vocal quartet harmony.”
Combined, the rich musical heritage and the social tradition feed each other. Today, on a global scale, the Society strives to preserve that musical/social heritage by seeding barbershop music and sharing in the collective experience of barbershop.
Why we preserve the Barbershop Harmony Society
In the early days of the BHS, “preservation and encouragement” meant assembling collections of songs for quartets (and very soon after, choruses) to sing together. Arrangers set to paper what woodshedders had worked out by ear. In the 1960s, establishing the Old Songs Library collection of vintage sheet music, and copyright clearance services for arrangements were the beginning of a conscious effort to preserve a distinctive literature of American folk music. Scholars rely on our resources to describe the course of close-harmony singing from the mid-19th century through today.
Putting those songs in front of audiences— in shows, recordings, and contests—kept singers engaged.
The BHS archives grew to include more than 50,000 hours of recorded video and audio that provide the sonic story of the barbershop style through generations.
How we make it happen
Bringing the barbershop sound to the broadest possible audience
Saving the collection
Our precious audio heritage is endangered. More than 5,000 reels, tapes, films, and video cassettes continue to age. Professional archival restoration, at significant expense, is required for handling fragile materials which might have only one chance to be recovered.
This collection is important, both as historical documents and also for the pure joy of discovery they offer barbershop fans. That collection only grows, as each year we collect hundreds of new performances at major events and contests. We have been extracting select performances for special one-time events in recent years, but we have only scratched the surface of preserving these archives because of the sheer volume of archives.
Singing the “old songs” and the “new songs” bring barbershop to life
A collection of sheet music on a shelf doesn’t touch people’s hearts. Music sung is music felt.
Yes, we’ve always preserved the old songs…and sung new ones, too. Our roots in songs of the day harmonized by ear continue —whether an anthem of social change from the Sixties, or a Broadway hit from the 2000s, or a Tin Pan Alley chestnut. In 2019 alone, we’ve added 120 new titles spanning eras, genres, and degrees of difficulty.
We add more than 500 songs per year to our YouTube channel, which reaches 133,000 subscribers annually. That same mix of historical preservation (curating treasures of the past) and innovation (making new things of beauty) means listeners can stumble into barbershop while looking for a current pop song…and be led into classic barbershop gems.
Saving the culture
The human history of the Barbershop Harmony Society is reflected in the memorabilia we leave behind: show programs, contest photos, stage costumes, trinkets, patches, writings, and anything else you can slap a barberpole on. Our historical archives fill a huge storeroom in Harmony Hall, our headquarters building in Nashville, Tennessee.
From the collection of quartet champion costumes to the original writings of the very first barbershop historians, these irreplaceable items await a day when we can display and interpret them to tell the story of individuals who have made a difference in the world through barbershop singing.
More people hear and sing more barbershop than ever and want to learn more about who we are
Our aggressive growth on YouTube brings more than sixteen million views each year.
The tremendous spin-off effect: mention “barbershop” to folks today, and they actually know what you’re talking about.
Your gift preserves the full range of barbershop for the world to hear and to sing!
When you make a gift, we can:
- Help digitize tens of thousands of hours of historic barbershop performances in the vaults. Many of these are in ancient recording formats, some in danger of disintegrating if not handled carefully—and soon.
- Show the world the many faces of barbershop. Expand the thousands of YouTube videos showing singers of all backgrounds—from student choruses in China to seniors choruses in Kansas. From kid quartets in their first time on stage, to the memorable artistry of quartet champions.
- Help fund creation of new barbershop classics. Top arrangers, premium producers of learning tracks, and industry publishing pros keep expanding the barbershop universe for all singers. Your gift keeps the music fresh for new singers, and preserves our legacy of classics with new settings and revived favorites, like the Barberpole Cat Volume II and new Yuletide Favorites II songbooks.
- Guard and interpret our treasure trove of history. The largest single repository of our history lies waiting to be uncovered, cataloged and interpreted. Recovering tens of thousands of photographs, artifacts, and memories will take time—and your support.