A happy accident, the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America

The worst acronym award has to be granted to SPEBSQSA or the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. I stumbled across a photograph envelope with this weighty society name one afternoon and immediately had to look inside. What I found did not disappoint.

The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was a happy accident coordinated by Owen Clifton Cash in April 1938. Interested only in getting a few fellows together to sing he sent out an invention to 14 individuals and encouraged them to bring guests. The invitation read in part:

Gentlemen,
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 Quartet singing. Without doubt we still have the right of “peaceable assembly” which I am advised by competent legal authority includes quartet singing. The writers of this letter have for a long time thought that something should be done to encourage the enjoyment of this last remaining source of human liberty. Therefore, we have decided to hold a songfest on the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club on Monday, April 11, at 6:30 p. m. 

He wrote later that he “invited 14 men and 26 ‘crashed the party.’ The 26 sang and harmonized for several hours with several breaking off into quartets. The next gathering attracted 70 singers. The group quickly left the confines of its birthplace in Tulsa, Oklahoma and spread throughout the United States.

4 past presidents of C-U chapter of SPEBSQSA

Past presidents of the C-U Chapter of SPEBSQSA, left to right Norman Billington, William E. Glegg, William Berryman, and Glynn W. White (seated)

Champaign-Urbana began its chapter in the fall of 1946. William Berryman, a long-time baker and local businessman brought the idea to C-U when he returned to the area after residing in Bloomington for several years. Two years later the Champaign-Urbana Chapter was hailed by the Illinois District Association of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America as being the most active with nearly 100 members and 4 quartets. The quartets included: The Four Men of Note, the Illini Four, The Warbeliers, and the Stevadoors. 

The Champaign County Historical Archives has several items in its collection related to the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America including the photograph envelope I mentioned earlier, a history of the first 10 years of the Champaign-Urbana chapter, and several indexed newspaper articles in the News-Gazette and the Courier

Champaign-Urbana still has a local chapter the Illini Statesmen.

And because you can’t write about barber shop quartets without listening to some music here is a link-o-rama to some videos from the Barbershop Harmony Society (the much simpler public name SPEBSQSA adopted in 2007). 

Cute kids aka Elementary Mix singing 'The Chordbusters' March'

Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra musical nostalgia aka The Reunion singing 'O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg/There Used to be a Ballpark Here'

For Mike Rowe fans aka Forefront singing 'Sweet and Lovely' (featuring Mike Rowe)

I’m not crying, you’re crying aka 2017 Midwinter Youth Men's Chorus singing Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'

- Sherrie, Archives Librarian