The man who started “Gospel” music

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.

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