A Rich African-American Tradition
Revealing the heart of barbershop music.
Barbershop harmony finds its roots in a rich African-American tradition. Lynn Abbott, a jazz archivist at Tulane University, was an expert on early African-American popular music and gospel quartets. He discovered overwhelming evidence that barbershop quartetting was pervasive in African-American culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including among many men who went on to become the pioneers of jazz.
Abbott published his findings in a 1992 academic paper that forever changed the way Barbershoppers understand their roots.
From the evidence gathered by Lynn Abbot and other historians and supporting evidence, we might glean the following plausible, albeit overly simplistic, scenario of the black origins of barbershop music.
- Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, blacks 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.
- The idiosyncrasies of the sound made it ripe for imitation by white minstrel performers, who used blackface, Negro dialect and musical inspirations to parody the black culture. It should be noted that black minstrel shows also included the unique musical style.
- The sound became so popular that white professional quartets, often consisting of minstrel performers, brought the sound into the burgeoning recording studio scene. Black quartets, on the other hand, were rarely recorded, and when they were, their recordings were not given the mass distribution enjoyed by white artists. These white close-harmony recordings included the old minstrel songs, but also newly written songs that did not necessarily refer to stereotypes of African-American culture.
- A hybrid form of the music arose, resulting from two main factors:
- White men were singing it and infused it with some of their own traditions; and,
- The limitations of the recording process at that time forced quartets to shed inherent vocal traits and affectations that would not reproduce well on the early recording equipment, or, perhaps, would not have been acceptable to the public. As a result, certain so-called “low-brow” elements of the black version of barbershop music were lost.
- Due to the popularity of these recordings, people—especially those in the white communities—came to associate the peculiar close-harmony sound with the white quartets that recorded them, thus sealing the stereotype.
Discovering the Past
Most of us hadn't realized the extent of the presence of barbershop harmony in African-American culture until 1992, when Lynn Abbott published an article called “Play that Barbershop Chord; A case for the African-American origin of barbershop harmony” in American Music. Lynn had documented so well, irrefutably, from numerous newspaper articles and books and live interviews, the extent of which our music was pervasive in the culture of African-Americans.
Until then, many of us believed that the first historical reference to barbershop harmony was the 1910 song, “Play That Barbershop Chord.” The sheet music cover features a black Vaudevillian named Bert Williams. The song was also recorded by a white quartet, The American Quartet, which twice stops the song and then says in African-American dialect, “That’s it. That’s what. That’s a barbershop chord.” The chord they’ve stopped on is what we now call our barbershop 7th. This shows that in 1910, that chord was associated with a barbershop quartet and with African-American harmonizing.
WATCH: The African-American Origins of Barbershop Music and Why it Matters
Building on the original research of Lynn Abbott, Tulane University, Dr. David Wright traces the indisputable roots of the barbershop style to African-American singers.
Above: Dr. David Wright, a mainstay every year at our Harmony University with his class History of Barbershop, takes an in-depth look at the barbershop art form, its history, how it formed, and how it continues to evolve even today.
Above: Hear snapshots of the Barbershop style over the years and how it has evolved into the current art form.