The barbershop singing style isn’t just the hum of a pitch pipe before those men in red and white striped jackets begin harmonizing. For Brian Lynch, who has been a “barbershopper” for the past 21 years, it’s really more of a calling. “For so many people, it starts out as an amusement, turns into a hobby, then it becomes a lifestyle and then a calling,” he says. “I’m way past calling — I’m at discipleship now I think."
The Barbershop Harmony Society, which happens to be headquartered in Nashville, ssys barbershop harmony is thought to be one of the few uniquely American styles of music, right alongside jazz. Barbershop, which is sung in four-part harmony and a capella, is a genre so often overlooked, but for the men and women joining voices, it’s something special.
In April 1938, Owen Clifton Cash got a group of men together for a singing. He’d just come back from Kansas City, where he’d talked with acquaintance Rupert Hall about forming a ‘Song Fest.’ Cash mailed out letters to singers he knew and encouraged them to bring friends. On April 11, the 14 men Cash invited, along with 26 others — all of whom he said crashed the party — sang together on the rooftop of a club in Tulsa, Okla. The next week, the number of men in attendance was up to 70. By the start of June 1938, the first chapter was formed, and 80 years later, barbershoppers all over the world are still getting together to sing some of those same songs.
Lynch, who works with the Barbershop Harmony Society as the public relations manager, says it’s that same sort of accidental invitation that gets most barbershoppers together nowadays too. “Barbershop is something that’s easy to start. You can be singing in your first 10 minutes. We have a fun little habit of teaching each other short songs called tags, and we do that so we can sing in four-part harmony with people we’ve never met,” Lynch says. “Nashville is a city littered of people dreaming of stardom, but it’s not always about that. Sometimes, it’s just about the pleasure of doing it. We’re all just hanging out teaching each other bits of music, and we’re doing that for the pleasure and the personal connection. That’s the heart of music right there, creating that bond to be a bridge between two people using voices.”
For Chad Bennett, who works as a show producer and with the Barbershop Harmony Society outreach department, that’s what makes barbershop so great. “Ninety percent of our members know these songs by heart. When I was working as a vocalist with the Dapper Dans at Walt Disney World, we had people multiple times a day from all over the world, people who we had just me [come up to us] and we could get them singing immediately with those tags,” Bennett says. “English was not the first language of some but because they were familiar with those songs, we were able to sing together. Until you’re right in the middle of it singing along, no one can really understand that feeling. There’s something really special there that’s hard to capture anywhere else."
And it helps too that barbershoppers don’t tend to be too bashful, says Danny Becker, who works in the customer service department at the Barbershop Harmony Society. “We’re not typically a shy group either. We can usually get anyone to at least attempt to sing something. Last week, we had a staff outing on the rooftop of a nearby restaurant, and one of the waiters, we had him singing in five minutes. He was interested in what we did, and that always runs into us asking, ‘Hey do you sing?’ We just say hold this note, and we sing around it,” says Becker, who got his start in barbershop at 17. But the act of singing does much more than just fill a room with beautiful sounds, it creates connections between all kinds of people - it transcends class barriers, race barriers, income and language, Bennet says. “It’s something that with almost no training at all, you can jump right in and start doing."
June 21 is Make Music Day, a day where you’ll be able to find free, live music in more places than normal in Music City, and the Barbershop Harmony Society will be hosting several singing groups in partnership with Make Music Nashville. If you want to see what barbershop is all about, the guys at the society welcome you to come listen. But fair warning: Be prepared to sing