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SPEBSQSA (Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America)

In the nineteenth century the art of personal self-expression through singing came to include an American form called "barbershop." Music historians assert that in the 1880s and 1890s African Americans, vocalizing in spirituals, folk songs, and popular songs, generated the new style, consisting of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing. White minstrel singers adopted the style, and in the early days of the recording industry, white quartets' performances were recorded and sold. "Old-fashioned standards" included familiar songs such as "Shine On, Harvest Moon," "Hello, My Baby," and "Sweet Adeline." Very popular in the first decades of the 1900s, barbershop quartet singing faded into obscurity in the 1920s.

In spring 1938 two Tulsans, Rupert I. Hall, an investments manager, and O. C. Cash, a tax attorney, decided to gather a few other interested individuals to revive barbershop harmony. Twenty-six attended an April 11 meeting at the Hotel Tulsa. Three weeks later a now-weekly meeting drew more than one hundred, and publicity fostered an informal organization, humorously called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. An Oklahoma City chapter began in July of that year, followed by groups in Kansas City, St. Louis, and four other towns.

In 1939 a "national convention" at Tulsa Central High School drew 150 delegates, comprising fifty quartets from seventeen cities in ten states. The Bartlesville Barflies won the quartet competition with a repertoire including a rendition of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon." At the second convention, held at the New York World's Fair in 1940, the Flat Foot Four (Oklahoma City policemen) bested two hundred quartets to capture the championship. As the popular movement continued to spread, eventually the group formally organized, with officers, charters, and bylaws. Oklahoma towns hosting chapters have included Tulsa (Founders Chapter, 1938), Oklahoma City (OK Chorale, 1938), and Enid (Chisholm Trail Chorus, 1947).

Now headquartered in Kenosha, Wisconsin, SPEBSQSA continues to promote barbershop singing. Barbershop's musical repertoire now includes thousands of traditional and modern songs performed by quartets and chorales. The organization provides members with customary and new musical arrangements, vocal training, and advice on quartet and chorale organization. The society has more than forty thousand members throughout all fifty states and in Europe and Australia, and the annual competition is international. Formerly part of the Central States District, since 1949 Oklahoma has been part of a Southwest District, with Texas, Louisiana, and part of New Mexico and Arkansas. A Southwestern District hall of fame was established in Houston in 1987, and since 1988 the Wisconsin headquarters has housed a Heritage Hall Museum of Barbershop Harmony. Music historian J. Terry Gates characterizes the significance of barbershopping as "the last extant example in American culture of the ancient tradition of secular vocal parlor musics."

The Sweet Adelines International, a collateral singing group, was established in Tulsa in July 1945 by Edna Mae Anderson. She and other wives of SPEBSQSA members met at the Hotel Tulsa to establish women's quartets. This movement's success paralleled that of the men's, and at the first national convention, held in 1947 in Tulsa, quartets competed and members established a national organization. In four years there were fifteen hundred women in thirty-five chapters of Sweet Adelines in fourteen states. Tulsa remains the headquarters of Sweet Adelines International, with thirty thousand members in the United States and other nations.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lynn Abbott, "'Play that Barber Shop Chord': A Case for the African-American Origin of Barbershop Harmony," American Music (Fall 1992). Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 11 and 15 September 1938, 14 August 1940, 14 November 1945, and 22 June 1947. James E. Henry, "The Origins of Barbershop Harmony" (Ph.D. diss., Washington University, 2000). Dean Snyder, "From the Inside A Descriptive View of SPEBSQSA," in Max Kaplan, ed., Barbershopping: Musical and Social Harmony (Madison, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993).

Dianna Everett

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