The simplicity of a cappella— singing without instrumental accompaniment—is in the midst of a revival, spurred on in part by reality shows that celebrate unadorned vocals. And the added attention has helped inject energy into an unlikely candidate: the traditional unaccompanied harmonies of barbershop.
“With shows like Glee and The Voice, the focus is that singing is cool,” said Steve Armstrong, musical director of Toronto Northern Lights chorus. “Shows like the Sing Off, which is a cappella, has been great to develop interest in barbershop.”
Barbershop quartets originated in the late 19th century, when African American men socialized in barbershops and began to sing folk songs and spiritual hymns in four-part harmony. The style was adopted between 1900 and 1919 by minstrel singers, who recorded their performances and sold them. The musical tradition’s four-part harmony is still commonly associated with striped suits, mustaches and boater hats, but proponents say the modern form is nothing like that sung in the early 1900s.
“It’s an unknown entity to a lot of people,” explains Erin Howden, associate director and choreographer to North Metro chorus. “People’s perception comes from years ago with four guys standing around a barber pole singing ‘Down by the Old Mill Stream,’ but the foundation of the art form has expanded in ways that allow younger generations to enjoy the music as well.”
These groups of men and women have adapted the classic nature of barbershop to make it more appealing to younger generations. Along with old-fashioned barbershop songs, they add their own twists to jazz, soul, Broadway, rock, and pop. Some groups sing Elvis or the Beatles, while others work on mash-ups of top 40 hits. Comedy is often encouraged.