If you're at all familiar with the modern perception of barbershop singing, you might have guessed that one of its leading organizations, the Barbershop Harmony Society, was an all-male — and all-white — organization at the time of its founding in 1938. The organization opened to people of color in 1963, as the country was living within the crucible of the civil rights movement. For 80 years, though, it remained closed to women. Until yesterday.
"Beginning today," the BHS' statement, released June 19, reads, "we welcome women to join the Barbershop Harmony Society as members." Its membership chapters can, however, "choose to stay exactly the same as you are today" — as a male-only club — or "choose to add a mixed chorus, or a new, distinct women's chorus. New chapters might form — male, female, or mixed. This is about adding, not subtracting. More people, sharing more harmony, and more joy, in more ways." Later, its announcement makes it plain that chapters are not required to begin accepting female members. And, further suggesting a controversial core to the announcement, the BHS notes it believes "preserving the experience of men singing together and welcoming women as members of the barbershop harmony society are compatible ideas."
The announcement is the result of a three-year soul search undertaken by the BHS, during which it conducted membership surveys, studies and research on its aims, which yielded a broad platform: "Everyone In Harmony."
The BHS' policy shift and the statement accompanying it is notable both for its timing and its tone — "cautious" might be the word. It's a tiptoe that can be traced with ease to the cultural origins in which barbershop became popular. The Barbershop Harmony Society's first meeting took place in the spring of 1938 at the Tulsa Club, an all-white, membership-only organization of the time, established to provide southern oil men a place to socialize in private. After a two-decade wane in popularity that began in the '20s, the establishment of the BHS kicked off a revival of the barbershop sound through the '40s and helped to define a (not-incorrect) perception of the genre that has lasted into the present day.
"Gentlemen," the organization's initial, industrialist-tinged call to song began, "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 and directed, is the art of barber shop [sic] quartet singing."