What do the Southern Stars, the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet, and the Mills Brothers have in common? All three quartets were created in neighborhood barbershops. Yet, these aren’t the only famous Black artists to come out of neighborhood quartets. Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, and Louis Armstrong also all started their musical careers in recreational quartets. What this illustrates is just how meaningful the barbershop quartet tradition was to the advancement of Black artists in a time of racial segregation. Yet, without research, one wouldn’t know how important the barbershop quartet tradition was to African-Americans as the original creators of the barbershop quartet (African-Americans) have been erased from the narrative.
When you think of a barbershop quartet, you might think of the image that displays the group of four white men dressed in identical clothing and hats. Yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
These images of four Black men together in suits better represent what the original barbershop quartets looked like…
The barbershop quartet tradition was first started in the 1880s by African-Americans. In the following two decades, the music style boomed, and barbershop quartets were in high demand by the public masses. Barbershop quartets would harmonize almost any type of song, from spirituals to folk songs or just the popular tunes of the time. The peculiar and unique sounds born in the barbershop quartets quickly became ingrained in African-American culture. Overall, though, these quartets helped many Black musicians make a name for themselves and others, as a launching point for their musical careers.
Even though African Americans created the barbershop quartet, they are not often recognized as doing so. This lack of acknowledgment for the Black creators of the genre was caused in part by minstrel shows. As the barbershop music genre became increasingly popular, White minstrel performers started to imitate Black barbershop quartets. Due to their skin color, White groups singing with the barbershop style were able to produce more records versus Black barbershop quartets. Because there were more recordings of White groups, the sound quickly became closely associated with Whiteness. This saturation of recordings of White barbershop quartets enabled White barbershop quartets to exploit the style created by Black people and to become famous for a style of music that they didn’t even invent.
Such as with the banjo and folk music, many Black artists are taking control of the narrative and inserting themselves back into the whitewashed genre of music. One particular group that is doing so is HALO, the first barbershop quartet entirely made up of African Americans to compete on a barbershop organization’s international stage. The group founders created the group to use the barbershop genre of music to confront the deeply rooted racism in the United States through their Community Music Therapy initiative.
Yet, even with the inclusion of new Black artists in the barbershop genre, it is important to acknowledge the more than 100 years of erasure done by White people to Black artists, specifically in the barbershop genre. Black barbershop quartets were the blueprint to many White barbershop quartets. Without Black barbershop quartets, there would be no Boston Common barbershop quartet, Buffalo Bills barbershop quartet, or any other famous White barbershop quartets. The Black creators of the genre were exploited and then excluded from their very own genre of music by White artists who imitated them. This is only another instance of the rampant cultural appropriation done in America that stops Black artists from getting recognition.