Taken from "Preserving an art form: the Barbershop Harmony Society"
For more information visit www.spebsqsa.org


What is this thing called SPEBSQSA, and why do so many people have so much fun as part of it?

As much a part of American culture as Old Glory, Mom and apple pie, barbershop quartet singing is one of America's native art forms. It is alive today, largely through the efforts of an organization called the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA).

Though the roots of four-part harmony go back more than a century, it was not until the near-accidental formation of the Society that barbershop quartet music was actively promoted.

The Early Years

SPEBSQSA was founded in 1938, when Tulsa tax attorney Owen C. Cash happened to meet a fellow Tulsan, investment banker Rupert I. Hall, while both were in Kansas City, stranded when a storm closed the airport. Meeting by chance in a hotel lobby, the men discovered their mutual love for vocal harmony, and together they bemoaned the decline of that all-American institution, the barbershop quartet.

Determined to stem that decline, they wrote a humorous letter to friends, stating:

"In this age of dictators and government control of everything, about the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some way supervised or directed is the art of barbershop quartet singing. Without a doubt, we still have the right of peaceable assembly which, we are advised by competent legal authority, includes quartet singing.

"The writers have, for a long time, thought that something should be done to encourage the enjoyment of this last remaining vestige of human liberty. Therefore, we have decided to hold a songfest on the roof garden of the Tulsa Club on Monday, April 11, 1938, at 6:30 p.m."

Twenty-six men attended that first rooftop meeting, and all agreed they should do it again. Attendance at subsequent meetings multiplied rapidly; at the third gathering, more than 150 harmonizers raised such a sound that traffic stopped on the street below. A reporter for the Tulsa Daily World chanced to pass by the scene, sensed a good story, and put the story on the national news wires. The lengthy name and initials, founder Cash's way of poking fun at the New Deal's "alphabet soup" of initialed government agencies, captured the imagination of readers coast to coast, and inquiries came pouring in.

The Society today

SPEBSQSA is now the world's largest all-male singing organization, with more than 34,000 singers in more than 800 chapters in the United States and Canada. Another 4,000 barbershoppers are members of affiliated organizations in Australia, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.

The Society is headquartered in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in a historic 1930s-era mansion on the shores of Lake Michigan. Harmony Hall is home to the Old Songs Library, the world's largest privately-held collection of sheet music, containing 750,000 sheets and 125,000 titles from the heyday of Tin Pan Alley. The Heritage Hall Museum of Barbershop Harmony, also located in Harmony Hall, serves as repository for barbershop memorabilia, early recordings, costumes, research materials and historical documents tracing the roots of the barbershop style.

A professional staff of 40 administers a wide range of programs and services, including:

  • The Harmonizer, a bi-monthly magazine for members
  • Digital mastering of audio and video productions
  • Music publishing services, with more than 600 barbershop arrangements in print
  • Convention planning for meetings attended by more than 13,000 members annually
  • Harmony Marketplace, a merchandise operation that grossing more than $1 million annually
  • A travelling staff of music and membership specialists who conduct numerous workshops and clinics throughout North America
  • Education programs such as Chapter Officer Training Schools,
  • Directors Colleges and Harmony College, a week-long school attended by more than 600 singers annually