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Barbershop Harmony Society
Barbershop Harmony Society
Official Barbershop Harmony Society logo
Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc.
The Barbershop Harmony Society, legally and historically named the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America, Inc. (SPEBSQSA), is the first of several organizations to promote and preserve barbershop music as an art form. Founded by Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1938, the organization quickly grew, promoting barbershop harmony among men of all ages. As of 2014, just under 23,000 men in the United States and Canada were members of this organization whose focus is on a cappella music. The international headquarters was in Kenosha, Wisconsin for fifty years before moving to Nashville, Tennessee in 2007. In June 2018, the society announced it would allow women to join as full members.
A parallel women's singing organization, Sweet Adelines International (SAI) was founded in 1945. A second women's barbershop harmony organization, Harmony, Inc., broke from SAI in 1959 over an issue of racial exclusion, with SAI (like SPEBSQSA and many other organizations) being white-only at that time; SPEBSQSA officially lifted the requirement in 1963. Several international affiliate organizations, in countries around the world, add their own flavor to the signature sound of barbershop harmony.
The original name SPEBSQSA was intended as a lampoon on Roosevelt's New Dealalphabet agencies. Because of the name's length and the difficult-to-pronounce acronym, society staff and members often refer to SPEBSQSA as The Society. For decades, SPEBSQSA was the official name, while the Barbershop Harmony Society was an officially recognized and sanctioned alternate. Members were encouraged to use the alternate name, because it was felt that the official name was an in-joke that did not resonate outside the Society. In mid-2004, faced with declining membership, the Society adopted a marketing plan that called for using "Barbershop Harmony Society" consistently and retaining the old name for certain legal purposes.
The old official name spelled "barber shop" as two words, while barbershop is generally used elsewhere.
In reference to the acronym SPEBSQSA, The Society has said "attempts to pronounce the name are discouraged". Unofficially, it is sometimes pronounced as if it were spelled "Spebsqua".
In late 2004, the Society established Barbershop Harmony Society as its new "brand name", with a logo and identity program released in 2005. Although the legal name remained SPEBSQSA, Inc., the decision was controversial, as many members felt that the new name did not reflect a mission of preservation and encouragement of the style. Many members were concerned that the term "quartet" had been dropped, fearing a movement in the direction of choral singing and downplaying quartet singing.
A key aspect of the Society's mission is in the preservation of barbershop music. To this end, it maintains the Old Songs Library. Holding over 100,000 titles (750,000 sheets) this is the largest sheet music collection in the world excepting only the Library of Congress.
The "Barberpole Cat Program" is a collection of 12 songs (commonly known as "polecats") that are considered standard repertoire for every barbershopper ("Let Me Call You Sweetheart", "My Wild Irish Rose", etc.) Every member receives a booklet upon joining the society. The purpose of this collection is so that whenever any barbershoppers meet they will always have something ready to sing. The society has also published collections such as Strictly Barbershop.
Harmony Foundation International, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, was incorporated in 1959 as a charitable subsidiary of the Barbershop Harmony Society; it raises financial support for the society's programs.
In 2006 the Society announced plans to move its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee. In August 2007, the Society completed the relocation to 110 Seventh Avenue North, in Nashville.
In June 2018, the society announced it would allow women to join as full members, with each chapter deciding whether to remain all-male or add a mixed or all-women's chorus. Since 2009, women had been allowed to join as associates.
To promote and improve barbershop singing, the society annually runs international and district-level contests for choruses and quartets.
When a quartet wins the international gold medal, the foursome are considered champions forever and may not compete again. A chorus that wins the gold, however, must sit out of competition for only two years and thus may compete for the gold medal again in the third year following their win.
The Vocal Majority, based in Dallas, TX, thirteen-time International Chorus Champions (1975, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2014, 2018) - the chorus with the most international gold medals, ten of which were in succession (each time the chorus was eligible to compete) until 2009.
The Ambassadors of Harmony, based in St. Charles, MO, International Chorus Champions in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2016. Their 2009 championship interrupted the Vocal Majority's streak at 10 consecutive championships.
The Masters of Harmony, nine-time International Chorus Champions (1990, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2017).
The Westminster Chorus, a youth barbershop chorus in California started by young members of the Masters of Harmony, International Champion in 2007, 2010, and 2015.
The Louisville Thoroughbreds Chorus, the society's first 7-time International Champion chorus won the gold medal in 1962, 1966, 1969, 1974, 1978, 1981 and 1984.
For purposes of administration, particularly of local education and contests, the society is organized into 17 geographical districts as follows. (Chapter quantities are as of November 2017.)
^Averill, Gage (2003), Four Parts: No Waiting, Oxford University Press, ISBN0-19-511672-0, p. 132: "Sweet Adelines had no black members, and no one was aware of any black singers who had petitioned to join the organization. Still, the board argued that there had always been tacit agreement about racial exclusion and it was time to formalize this policy...."