A Brief History of Barbershop Singing and the Holland Windmill Chorus

specialFour-part singing by men in quartets and choruses dates back hundreds of years. Quartets, both black and white, entertained from town to town perhaps 160 years ago in America. They were a staple of the vaudeville era, 1870 to about 1930. And people have always sung four-part harmony in their parlors and living rooms.

But the beginning of organized barbershop singing can be fixed at a certain time and place: On April 11, 1938, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, O.C. Cash, a tax attorney, and Rupert Hall, an investment man, held a songfest on the Roof Garden of the Tulsa Club. By the third meeting of this group 150 people showed up. Newspapers and wire services spread the word and barbershop groups sprang up coast to coast. The first quartet contest was in Tulsa in 1939. As popularity and membership grew the Society’s first chorus contest was added in 1953, at a convention in Detroit, and the Grand Rapids chorus won.


Today the Barbershop Harmony Society has some 25,000 members in the United States and Canada. Barbershop harmony has spread overseas. There are similar organizations in Australia, Finland, Great Britain, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Spain and South Africa. Russia held its first barbershop convention in 1998. Barbershoppers from Japan and China have performed on American stages.


Barbershop singing came to Holland near the end of World War II. In 1945 Willis A. Diekema, president of DePree Chemical Co., formed the Holland Windmill Chapter with about 30 local businessmen. The first meetings were held in the old Warm Friend Hotel. The Tulip City Four quartet joined the chapter, having previously sung only religious music. In 1946 the chapter put on its first show at the high school. A local high school quartet, The Harmaniacs, became the Bush League champion of 1946 among new Michigan quartets.


By 1950 a dramatic rise in popularity of barbershop music was enjoyed both nationally and in Holland. Willis Diekema became one of the top arrangers of barbershop music in the nation. He wrote the words and music to “Keep America Singing,” the Society’s theme song, which is sung every week in chapters all over North America. Clarence Jalving, a Holland banker, became president of the Society.


In 1954 the Windmill Chorus represented Michigan in International competition in Washington, D.C. and sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Windmill Chorus was district champion in 1953, 1963 and 1993.


A quartet with ties to Holland, the Extension Chords, won the district championship in 1952. In 1959 a Holland quartet, the Chord Counts, became district champs. In 1994 a new district champion, Genuine Blend, emerged from Holland and competed internationally in 1995 and 1996.


In 1998 the chorus went on a 10-day tour of The Netherlands, visited two Dutch chapters, and sang in three shows there. The chapter also in 1998 purchased the Park Theater in Holland and spent four years renovating it before turning the project over to the Park Theater Foundation. Holland’s own Willis Diekema in 2010 was named to the Society’s Hall of Fame.


The Windmill Chorus holds a big show during Tulip Time, sings Christmas carols in downtown Holland, and performs in other cities. The chorus and its quartets sing at churches, nursing homes and for civic events. Twice a year the chorus competes in contests held by the Society’s Pioneer District, which includes Michigan and part of Ontario. The Holland Chapter, like the Society, supports singing for young people and offers music education and singing opportunities for members.

The group meets each Tuesday at 7 p.m. for song practice, music education and chapter activities. Visitors and men who would like to sing are welcome.



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