Kevin Mungons and Doug Yeo
Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry:

Urbana, Illinois, United States
Publisher: The University of Illinois Press
Date of Publication: 2021
Language: English

Text book. 342 pages.

Primary Genre: Study Materials

Although today almost completely forgotten, Homer Rodeheaver (1880-1955) was one of the best-known personalities of his era. As the song leader and music director for evangelist Billy Sunday, he performed before hundreds of thousands every year. His forays into emerging technologies like music recording, radio, and film paved the way for evangelical success in subsequent decades. Why should readers of the ITA Journal care about any of this? Well, in addition to his other undertakings, he was also a trombone player. “Call me Reverend Trombone,” Rodeheaver said. For several decades, the trombone was a prominent feature of his ministry.

Kevin Mungons and Douglas Yeo have collaborated on a scholarly, nuanced biography of Homer Rodeheaver. While researching Rodeheaver separately, they were introduced to each other by an archivist and agreed to what became a most successful collaboration. Mungons is an editor, freelance author, ordained Baptist minister, and musician. Yeo was for many years bass trombonist for the Boston Symphony and currently teaches at his alma mater, Wheaton College. He is well known to ITA members for his erudite contributions to the Journal.

The book begins with a chapter exploring Rodeheaver’s roots but then, somewhat surprisingly, proceeds topically, exploring his multi-faceted life in chapters that overlap chronologically. This organizational approach serves to highlight Rodeheaver’s profound influence on the gospel music of his day: as performer, publisher, recording artist, record company owner, radio personality, and film actor. Along the way, readers encounter little nuggets of interest, such as: Rodeheaver was an Ohio Wesleyan classmate of baseball executive Branch Rickey and for one summer Rodeheaver traveled with Henry Fillmore, leading singing at revival meetings and selling hymnals for the publishing company of Fillmore’s father.

There is much to commend in this book, but I was especially encouraged and instructed by the sensitive manner in which Mungons and Yeo discuss the contradictions surrounding Homer Rodeheaver’s approach to race relations. On one hand, he loved to sing, publish, and introduce spirituals to white audiences. He recorded African American groups, like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and he seemed to be generally respected within the African American religious community. On the other hand, he was no civil rights crusader. He took part in black-faced performances as a college student and most embarrassingly, late in life, donned black face once again in an ill-fated short film production of the spiritual When Matildy Sings. He was part of an evangelistic team that accommodated Jim Crow laws and sensibilities, and he and Sunday did not reject occasional Klan presence at their city-wide evangelistic crusades. Although the authors do not project 21st-century sensibilities onto Rodeheaver’s life, neither do they excuse his choices. Yeo’s recent article on the music of Henry Fillmore serves as another good example of his thoughtful scholarship about race.

I was also intrigued by the authors’ explanation of the profound effect that Rodeheaver had on American vernacular music, American popular music, and eventually Contemporary Christian Music. Rodeheaver promoted Christian music that could be understood and enjoyed by American masses. He wanted a religious idiom distinct from the popular music of his day, i.e., ragtime and jazz, and he publicly proclaimed the hope that his music would replace popular songs. The headline of one article about him proudly stated, “This is Rodeheaver’s Trombone Which Has Never Played Jazz Music.” Nevertheless, Rodeheaver did incorporate elements of popular genres into his music. Popular artists like Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Mahaliah Jackson, among many others, recorded Rodeheaver copyrighted songs like The Old Rugged Cross, In the Garden, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, and His Eye is on the Sparrow, cementing his influence across genres. According to Mungons and Yeo, Rodeheaver probably would have rejected Contemporary Christian Music as a genre had he lived to see it, but his philosophy of inclusion foreshadowed the ideals of CCM.

Finally, throughout the book the authors emphasize the supreme importance that Rodeheaver placed on communal or congregational singing, the area in which he believed music most effectively exercised its power. Accompanying crowds of 15,000-20,000 people most effectively put his modest trombone playing abilities to use. Communal singing remained his focus as new technologies began to emerge. His published music encouraged people to sing together. His recorded music was intended to facilitate singing by congregations that had no musicians to lead them. Even his use of radio and his generally unsuccessful film ventures were often intended to encourage congregational singing. Congregational singing seems to have been at the core of virtually every musical decision Rodeheaver made.

Mungons and Yeo’s book, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry, combines painstaking research with insightful sociological and musicological analysis. Although co-authored, the book has a unified narrative. The extensive citations alone are worth the price of purchase. Even if one has only marginal interest in Homer Rodeheaver as a person, this scholarly description of American society at the turn of the 20th century proves fascinating and illuminating.

Reviewer: Paul Overly
Review Published July 6, 2022