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  • From Harmonic Style to Genre: The Early History (1890s–1940s) of the Uniquely American Musical Term Barbershop
  • Frédéric Döhl (bio)


For many decades, the genre of four-part a cappella singing called “barbershop” was a field of virtually no academic importance. In recent years, however, an increasing interest in its history and current status has become evident. Pioneering works have been written by scholars like Lynn Abbott, Gage Averill, Liz Garnett, James Earl Henry, and Richard Mook.1 Such studies include the examination of quartet singing from an educational, ethnological, and sociocultural point of view.2 Others are interested in the one big mainstream success of modern barbershop harmony, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, in the Broadway musical (1957) and the Hollywood film (1962).3 Besides that, special attention has always been paid to the interesting historical problem of the possible origins of this genre.4 In recent years, new insights and greater clarity have been acquired, which include aesthetic issues relating to sound, some answers to questions of race, gender, and other social factors shaping the genre, and exploration of the ideology surrounding the so-called revival around 1940. Still, the debate about the origins of this genre seems to be widely unsettled. The current models that chart the birth of barbershop harmony are diverse and often contradictory with regard to categories such as race, gender, regional context, social environment, amateur or [End Page 123] professional, impromptu or composed-arranged, and highbrow or low-brow. There is just one point of near mutual consent in this field: the date by which this genre was first fully established and enjoyed its classic or “golden age” is supposed to have been around 1900.5

This article aims to further this debate—especially surrounding the stylistic aspects of barbershop’s earliest phase—through a close terminological examination of new source documents.6 It should be noted that only a very limited number of sources have been unveiled and discussed up to now that deal with the meaning of the term “barbershop” in American popular music between the 1890s and the 1940s and that allow us to evaluate the relationship between the term and the genre. In the following, I will evaluate dozens of newspaper articles, song lyrics, advertisements, interviews, and contemporary eyewitness reports from the 1890s to the 1940s, most of them discussed here for the first time.7 These newly identified sources strongly support the view that barber-shop harmony started as a harmonic style in the 1890s and only much later—during the 1940s and early 1950s—developed into what became the genre of four-part a cappella music known today as barbershop.8

In his classic study Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, Charles Hamm identified “barbershop harmony” as a specific form of chord progression that indeed became especially popular in American music around 1900. He called it a harmonic style of which chromaticism is the central feature.9 This chromaticism is the result of introducing secondary dominants leading to the final cadence in major mode. An excerpt from Harry von Tilzer and Andrew B. Sterling’s “Wait ’till the Sun Shines, Nellie” (Harry von Tilzer Music Pub., New York, 1905) illustrates the key feature: chromaticism, enforced by falling circle-of-fifth progressions made of secondary dominant and dominant (seventh) chords (ex. 1). When the descending fifth progression is created with all applied [or secondary] dominant sevenths, three tones of each chord, including the leading-tone (i.e., B-natural to C in mm. in 13–14), allow chromatic voice leading to the next chord.

In addition, we find in “barbershop harmony” nondominant seventh chords, too, especially on I, III-flat, IV, VI-flat, and sometimes VII-flat. For example, in C major these would be C7 (tonic), E-flat 7 (flat mediant), F7 (subdominant), A-flat 7 (flat-submediant, later used as a dominant substitution in jazz), and B-flat 7 (or flat-subtonic). In “Wait ‘till the Sun Shines, Nellie” we also see here a typical “barbershop” use of the neighboring diminished-seventh chord, as in the F–A–C–E-flat/F–G-sharp–B–D/F–A–C–E-flat in...