Like most kids growing up in mainstream Protestant denominations in the mid-20th century, I associated the name Homer Rodeheaver—if it came up at all—with hymnals and gospel songs, most notably my grandmother Allie’s beloved “The Old Rugged Cross.” As an adult immersed in Black gospel music, I’ve paid little attention to the mostly sketchy scholarship on Rodeheaver. His Billy Sunday–styled revivalism, mass community sings (involving mostly white singers), and trombone-heavy stylings seemed to barely intersect with my work. His association with Sunday was especially troublesome in an Elmer Gantry sort of way.
As it turns out, I was wrong on nearly every count.
Homer Rodeheaver has quite a lot to do with all kinds of gospel music, as Kevin Mungons and Douglas Yeo demonstrate in their fascinating, eminently readable biography of a wildly underrated and rarely appreciated figure who made a significant impact on sacred music, Black and white. Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry introduces readers to a man who was clearly long overdue for a scholarly reappraisal.
Mungons is a well-respected writer and researcher; Yeo a master of the trombone, having performed with major symphonies and taught at the university level. Together, they untangle a number of personal, professional, and musical knots in Rodeheaver’s fast-paced, eventful, and woefully underdocumented life.
Barnstorming the nation
In the authors’ telling, Rodeheaver emerges as a complex, creative, entrepreneurial marvel, capable of predicting (and profiting from) future trends in sacred music. They reveal how he was able to promote African Americans and their gospel songs even as he (apparently) turned a blind eye to some of the mechanisms of the Ku Klux Klan. All told, the book raises the possibility that Rodeheaver had a more enduring impact than his original patron, Billy Sunday.
Coming of age just after the dawn of the 20th century, Rodeheaver was a young man of unexceptional musical skills. Even so, he was blessed with a mightily engaging personality. People liked him. Throughout his life, they trusted him. They wanted him to succeed. And they invariably helped him to succeed.
The authors explore Rodeheaver’s modest (but by no means impoverished) beginnings in rural Hocking County, Ohio. As he grew up, his sprawling religious family was feeling the early influence of the revivalism movement sweeping the American South and Midwest, fueled by evangelism from the likes of Dwight L. Moody and newfangled gospel songs from Ira D. Sankey, William Bradbury, Philip P. Bliss, and others. At Ohio Wesleyan University, the young Rodeheaver took up public speaking, acting, singing, selling hymnals door to door, and—for whatever reason—playing the trombone.
In the hands of what Mungons and Yeo describe as Rodeheaver’s “effervescent, outgoing personality,” the trombone became his personal “brand,” his distinguishing characteristic as he led the singing for ever-larger revivals, community sings, and evangelistic meetings. Here Yeo’s expertise yields a significant insight: “Homer’s trombone playing wasn’t very good.” But for a man with a million-dollar personality (and plentiful ambition), it never really seemed to matter.
From there, Rodeheaver gravitated to the regional revival circuit, moving from one evangelist to the next, leading the music that was essential to the boisterous services. All the while, he was becoming something of a draw himself, and by 1908, he had connected with the influential “fraternity” of gospel music publishers in Chicago. The twin sides of Rodeheaver’s professional life—as a charismatic song leader and a gospel publisher with an ear for great music—fed and empowered each other. He learned quickly that the secret to success (besides a winning personality; an adept, instinctive understanding of how to generate media coverage; and, well, a trombone) was singing the songs people wanted to hear—and then turning around and selling them those very songs.
Within the pre–World War I revival circuit in the United States, Billy Sunday was the dominant figure: a passionate orator who achieved rock-star status in Middle America for preaching the gospel to mammoth, adoring crowds. To Mungons (who is also a musician) and Yeo, there was a certain inevitability to the ultimate partnership between the nation’s fastest-rising song leader and its preeminent evangelist. Young, folksy, dashingly handsome, and very single, Rodeheaver eventually replaced Sunday’s longtime song leader Fred G. Fischer, and by 1910 the team was barnstorming the nation.
What separated Rodeheaver from the song leaders affiliated with other top revivalists (many of whom were also adopting trombones) was his early relationship with the Chicago gospel publishing houses. His innate likability endeared him to publishers and popular gospel composers alike, and his hymnals and songbooks became staples of the Billy Sunday tours, which routinely packed purpose-built 10,000-seat arenas night after night, creating an inexhaustible demand for the songs they featured. In time, Rodeheaver founded his own hugely successful publishing house.
Fueled by a catchy and inspirational (rather than evangelical) theme song, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” Rodeheaver’s star eventually eclipsed that of Sunday’s, who found the crowds dwindling in the post–World War I era. Rodeheaver recorded “Brighten the Corner” dozens of times, performed it thousands more, and hawked it throughout his life as an example of the power and importance of community singing, the central theme of his career. His popularity was such that he was able to withstand the lone major scandal of his career: allegations by a Miss Georgia Jay that Rodeheaver had callously broken off their engagement.
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons
From medium to medium
Rodeheaver, who had foreseen the decline of the great revivals, watched his publishing company flourish, as it purchased (or bought the copyrights to) the hymns and gospel songs the nation wanted to sing, including “The Old Rugged Cross.” When much of the gospel publishing industry faltered in the 1920s, Rodeheaver bought the failing houses—and their vast stores of hymns and songs. He was also among the first major religious artists to move into the new recorded music industry, and in short order he took ownership of popular recording studios and a seminal religious record label, Rainbow Records. When radio emerged as the next big thing, Rodeheaver was there, too. Somehow, write Mungons and Yeo, he unerringly “leapfrogged from medium to medium,” mostly with great financial success, well into the 1940s.
Rodeheaver eventually became friends with the most promising of the young generation of evangelists, Billy Graham, along with Graham’s longtime song leader Cliff Barrows, who also incorporated a trombone in the team’s early days. But a punishing travel schedule, one that would have exhausted a much younger man, soon took its toll, leading to Rodeheaver’s death in December 1955.
Beyond providing a detailed biography, Mungons and Yeo also devote fascinating chapters to Rodeheaver’s importance to the early days of the recorded music industry, his unwavering support of African American spirituals, and his complicated relationship with Jim Crow. While Rodeheaver forged friendships with well-known African Americans of the day, including Thomas Dorsey, he also participated in segregated evangelistic meetings and saw some of his best-known copyrights used and subverted by the Klan. From today’s standpoint, of course, these things are wholly unacceptable. But the authors also make a persuasive case for the genuineness of Rodeheaver’s lifelong support of African American causes and his love of Black sacred music.
Like virtually all the books in the University of Illinois’s much-honored Music in American Life series, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry fills in significant blanks in our understanding of different aspects of music history. Mungons and Yeo elevate their contribution with meticulous detail and research; a penchant for finding fascinating, revealing stories and anecdotes; and a sparkling, highly readable prose style that’s all too rare in most academic books.
Robert F. Darden is professor of journalism, public relations, and new media at Baylor University. He is the author of two dozen books, most recently Nothing but Love in God’s Water, Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and Nothing but Love in God’s Water, Volume 2: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City.