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Barbershop singing originated in US around 1870. Groups of men sang in barbershops while they were waiting for a haircut. Barbershops were popular for harmony singing because they generally had good acoustics. This type of singing wasn't confined to barbershops and was sometimes known as Curbstone Harmony if it was outside. The singing was strongly influenced by African immigrants who brought with them a long tradition of singing hymns and folk songs in groups, often in four parts. Minstrel shows were another result of the same influences.

The first written use of the word ‘barbershop’ when referring to harmonizing came in 1910, with the publication of the song, Play That Barbershop Chord. This suggests that the term had been around for a long time in spoken language. In later times it was variously written as ‘barber shop’, ‘barber-shop’ and barbershop.

Barbershop singing was at its height from 1900 to 1919. At that time song-writers made their money by sales of sheet music. They mostly wrote songs that could be sung by 'average' singers. They had simple melodies and commonplace themes which adapted well to “untrained singers” singing in harmony. The arrival of radio changed all that. Many song-writers turned to more sophisticated melodies for professional singers where harmony was much more difficult.  Barbershop singing began to die out though the harmonies remained in  the a cappella music of some churches.

At a business meeting in 1938, in Kansas City, O. C. Cash met Rupert Hall and they discovered a shared love of vocal harmony. They invited friends to sing with them. Twenty-six men attended their first meeting. By the third week there were about 150. They sang in the roof garden of a hotel and stopped the traffic. A young reporter took up the story. Cash was a good publicity man and convinced him that there were nationwide branches although these were really individual friends in various states. He invented the name SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America) as a joke in response to the politics of the time. The phenomenon soon spread throughout North America.

Early in its history the group adopted the alternate name "Barbershop Harmony Society".  In 2004, faced with declining membership, the Society adopted a marketing plan to use that name consistently, retaining the old name for legal reasons. Many members were concerned that ‘quartet’ had been dropped from the name, fearing a movement in the direction of choral singing rather than “close harmony” or quartet singing.

Sweet Adelines International is a similar organisation, founded in 1945, for women.

History of Barbershop in USA

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