April 11, Barbershop Quartet Day. Did it start from barbers cutting it up in the 1600’s?

Before Muzak, 17th-century British barbers kept a cittern (early guitar) handy for their customers to strum while waiting.

The percussively minded filled candlesticks with coins.  The resulting noise was referred to as “barber’s music.”

A description of barber’s music from the 1600’s:

My Lord called for the Lieutenant’s cittern and with our candlesticks and money for symbols, we made barber’s music with which my Lord was well pleased

My Lord must have had quite an ear.


“A Barber’s Shop at Richmond, Virginia,” from The Illustrated London News, March 9, 1861

Many barbers took up the instruments and acquired some skill as performers.

So much so that barbers in the 19th century United States were synonymous with musicians.

It was said of a man in Georgia in 1860:

“As once a time, he had been a barber, he knew how to play a guitar” 

Historians are in harmony about Barbershop origins  – except for race, gender, region, and context!

The early American barber’s music was probably strummed in the less stodgy and “proper” South.

Historical memoirs and journalism do indicate a strong tradition of African American men and quartet singing.

They gathered informally to “crack up a chord”.

In 1882 a New York Age writer noted the growth of home-grown singing alongside Black exclusion from theaters and concert halls.

This new style consisted of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing.

Later, white minstrel singers adopted the style and started selling records.

Many Barbershop revivalists noted in an off-hand way that porters (typically black) filled in for white singers.

They were usually given the baritone part, the least prestigious.

And that only temporarily.

The Dapper Dans barbershop quartet, at Walt Disney World’s Main Street, USA

If you think of Barbershop, it’s all oversized mustaches, striped jackets, and straw hats.

Why? It probably started with Vaudeville.

Barbershop quartets often entertained the audience during intervals.

They wore those vibrant costumes to be seen by those in the “cheap seats”.

Happy Barbershop Quartet Day.



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