Keep It Barbershop: Stylistic Preservation and Whiteness in the Barbershop Harmony Society

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Quinn, Ian


This dissertation examines the entanglement of music-theoretical practices and sociopolitical values in the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS), a fraternal singing organization with over 15,000 members and 600 chapters in the U.S. and Canada, as well as several affiliate barbershop societies across Europe. Since its founding in 1938, the BHS has had the explicit aim of preserving the barbershop style, a four-part, a cappella singing tradition popularized in the late nineteenth century and known for its ringing harmonies and camaraderie. Yet this bonhomie had its limits: by the early 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, the correlation between musical and demographic exclusion came into focus. As the BHS leadership fallaciously argued that the barbershop style was “not instinctive or natural” to Black Americans and fought to keep the Society racially segregated, they also taught members that barbershop “must be pure and undiluted by [other styles],” lest it become a “crossbreed.” By applying a critical race lens to arranging manuals, contest judging handbooks, and other music-theoretical texts, I illustrate how the BHS’s musical gatekeeping of the barbershop style was, and continues to be, intertwined with the exclusionary racial politics of the American barbershop community. I bolster my findings with extensive archival research detailing the Society’s history of racial exclusion during the civil rights era, as well as with ethnographic fieldwork surrounding the BHS’s “Everyone in Harmony” diversity initiative (2017–).

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