April 11 is National Barbershop Quartet Day.
It commemorates the day on which The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was founded in 1938. And that date is significant. Because, I researched this quite some time ago and learned to my surprise — hold on to your straw boater — that barbershop quartets weren’t really a thing. Or, rather they weren’t a thing in the 1890s or whatever, at least by that name, or in those particular outfits. Yes, singing quartets like the Manhattan Four, or the Avon Comedy Four were all the rage in vaudeville and proto-vaudeville at that time, etc, featuring arrangements and part singing of the sort we associate with barbershop quartets. And the repertoire of barbershop quartets is certainly period appropriate, ya know, songs like “Sweet Adeline” and “Down by the Old Mill Stream”. But if you’d gone up to somebody in 1910 or something and said “Where can I see a barbershop quartet” you might have been sent to a barber shop with four chairs which offered nothing but haircuts, shaves, and hot towels, and that’s about the extent of it.
In reality, the barbershop quartet is an invented tradition, a codification of a thing that hadn’t really existed, at least in such a formal fashion and certainly not by the name. It’s one of the earliest examples of America’s penchant for nostalgia and it seems to have cropped up in the 20s and 30s precisely BECAUSE the earlier pre-Jazz style was now a thing of the past. There were other responses: around the same time Billy Rose launched a Gay 90s themed night club in New York, and a young Joe Franklin started a nostalgia program on radio. Also: barbershop quartets have always tended to be a social thing for amateur groups: glee clubs, college fraternities, lodges, and so forth are the kinds of people who generally organized and performed barbershop quartets. It hasn’t typically been the path to the hit parade by professional singers you might see in a nightclub or theatre.
The style is certainly influential though, and styles like doo wop, or groups like the Beach Boys owe this kind of part singing a great debt.
Lately, it’s come back into vogue again (I just saw a barbershop quartet at the Coney Island USA gala a couple of weeks ago), though now generally with an ironic, hipster twist. (I’ve also seen Jimmy Fallon do some barbershop quartet bits). I’ve been dying to work one into my vaudeville shows for years, and I think it may be easier these days what with many more of them now floating around.
To find out more about vaudeville past and present and other sundry arcane forms of entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.