Unexpected Encounters: Finding New Connections in the Archives

This May, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections features an interview with professional trombonist and Wheaton College lecturer Douglas Yeo about his recent adventures in the archives, as well as his experience researching for his newly published book with co-author Kevin Mungons, Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry.

When and how were you first introduced to Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections?

Our family has three graduates of Wheaton College including our two daughters (’01 and ’04) and me (’76)—my wife also attended Wheaton—and we have been invested in the College for nearly 50 years. It was during one of our visits to see our oldest daughter—who stayed in Wheaton after graduation—that I visited the Billy Graham Museum on campus. I turned a corner and was confronted by a large cutout of a smiling person who was holding a trombone in one hand and a hymnal in another. “Who is THIS?”, I thought out loud. It turned out to be Homer Rodeheaver.

Rodeheaver cutout in the Billy Graham Museum

I kept that moment in mind and in 2013, I began going down the rabbit trail of Rodeheaver’s life with the eye to writing an article about his work as a trombone player and trombone icon for the Historic Brass Society Journal. I found it shocking that a person who had so much influence on gospel music and the trombone was virtually unknown today. When I reached out to a friend who is a curator at the National Music Museum to get some information about Rodeheaver’s endorsement of Conn trombones, she said that another researcher had also been asking her questions about Rodeheaver; she suggested that we get in contact. That led me to Kevin Mungons, an editor for Moody Publishers who had been researching Rodeheaver for many years. After my article was published, Kevin and I decided to turn our growing friendship into a collaboration and write the first full-length book about Rodeheaver. Following months of emails and talking on the phone, Kevin and I first met during a joint research trip to Wheaton’s Archives & Special Collections in 2014 where we found many treasures that informed the research for our book.

What kinds of research projects have led you to the Archives’ collections?

My article and book on Homer Rodeheaver was the main reason I turned to the Archives, and that subject occupied untold hours of research, but recently, my Wheaton College trombone quartet from 1974–1976 found our old recital and recording session tapes and we decided to release a CD of some of our performances. The Archives were very helpful as I went looking for items from the 1970s to use in our CD packaging that seemed to embody some of the creative spirit on campus at that time. I found the student-produced Wheaton College Monopoli Game (1973) and Wheaton College playing cards (1976) in the Archives and was able to take photos of them for our project. The Archives also had several photos of some members of our quartet that were taken during our student years that we’ve included with our recording.

What kinds of collections have you used most heavily and how were they applicable to your topic?

During most of the time we were researching Rodeheaver, the records of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association were at Wheaton College. They proved to be a rich mine as we explored the important relationship between Graham and Rodeheaver. Rodeheaver was a significant mentor to Graham and his whole team, especially Cliff Barrows. Once we established that relationship, I managed to secure an interview with Cliff who was so gracious in talking about Rodeheaver and the trombone (which he, like Rodeheaver, also played). That interview is now part of the Archives’ collection.

Additional collections we consulted included CN 061: Papers of Billy and Helen Sunday, CN 130: Ephemera of Homer Rodeheaver, CN 108: Papers of J. Palmer Muntz, and CN 041: Ephemera of Billy Sunday Campaign Music and the Old Time Religion, among others. One especially helpful and informative source was CN 138: Ephemera of American Hymn Writers and Composers, which contained letters to and from prominent members of Rodeheaver’s circle (like composer and hymnal publisher William A. Ogden, and film maker William E. Brousseau). As we wrote in our book, “The Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College continues to be the most significant archive of Christian evangelism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” We were the grateful beneficiaries of the decades-long work that staff at the Archives have done to collect and preserve this important history.

What can be intimidating about archival research?

You need a good dose of one of the most important virtues: Patience. Kevin and I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in various archival collections and viewing countless online archive collections. However, unlike “the old days” when I would have to pore over non-indexed microfilm reels for weeks and weeks in order to find a single important mention of an event for an article or book citation, most archives today are well cataloged, and it has made the discovery process much more efficient. Still, I have spent many hours with boxes of various collections of material and painstakingly going through—one at a time—thousands of photos, letters, and manuscripts. This is not a quick process; you need to have a high tolerance for boredom. But when that moment of discovery comes, that Eureka! moment, it’s more than worth all the time and effort.

Do you have a favorite collection or one that has yielded unexpected treasures?

A big part of our research was tracking down Rodeheaver’s legacy as a copyright owner of some of the most popular gospel songs of the twentieth century. The late Dr. Edith Blomhofer was a good friend, and she let us know that the Wheaton College Archives had recently received several boxes of materials from the estate of George Beverly Shea (CN 541). While the papers, at the time, were not cataloged, the hours we spent looking through the Shea collection unearthed important letters between Rodeheaver and Shea (and letters between Shea and Rhea Miller) about the copyright to Shea’s signature song, I’d Rather Have Jesus Than Silver or Gold. That discovery led to our including some information in our book that had not been previously discussed by other authors.

In your experience, what is the best part of archival research?

Rodeheaver and B. D. Ackley. (Photo File: Rodeheaver, Homer)

The chase. I love tracking down information and finding unexpected things. When I locate a needle in a haystack that I’ve been looking for over a period of years, or I stumble upon or uncover something that nobody else has noticed or discovered, it’s an indescribable feeling. Archival research allows me to bring people from the past to light, to “bring them back” in a sense.

Kevin and I have always said that Homer Rodeheaver is the most famous person you never heard of. In his time, he was on the front page of every important newspaper in the country. He played the trombone for over 100 million—million!—people in evangelistic meetings. His publishing and record companies were early—in some cases, the first—promoters of gospel music including African American spirituals. And his life also had some sticky elements, whether widely publicized romantic entanglements (including a long, complicated  relationship with evangelist Aimee Semple McPhearson), or the Ku Klux Klan co-opting The Old Rugged Cross—a song to which Rodeheaver owned the copyright—to become The Bright Fiery Cross.

Diving deeply into the resources in archives is the only way to find things that were important at one time, have been forgotten in our time, but which are so timely right now if only they would be brought to light. Rodeheaver’s influence on Christian song is still felt today, even if most people don’t know it was him who is still doing the influencing over 65 years since his death. We hope our book changes how people think about gospel songs and congregational and communal singing as they realize how Rodeheaver was blazing paths that we still walk today.

What project are you currently working on?

The coronavirus pandemic has been awful for everyone in countless ways, but because so many things I had hoped and planned to do during that time were cancelled—guest teaching residencies, recitals, and other performances—I had time to complete two books in 2021. The Homer Rodeheaver biography (University of Illinois Press) came out in June (a recent review in Christianity Today gave it five stars), and An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Player (Rowman & Littlefield) was released in November. Now I’m working to finish up a big book on the trombone (The Trombone Book) for Oxford University Press.

I always like to have several projects going at once, so I’m also at work on a major article about the great Chicago-based Native American (Sioux) Sousaphone player, John “Chief Red Cloud” Kuhn, for the International Tuba Euphonium Association Journal, and an article for the International Trombone Association Journal about the timely and complex subject of the intersection of racism, racial stereotyping, and music. My blog, thelasttrombone.com, also keeps me busy with shorter articles about rabbit trail discoveries that pop up in the midst of my larger research projects. My long list of other articles and books that I’d like to get to while I am still on this side of heaven continues to grow!

Douglas Yeo graduated from Wheaton College (1976) and New York University (1979), was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 2012, then taught at Arizona State University, and since 2019 has been Wheaton College’s trombone professor. Explore more of his work at https://www.wheaton.edu/academics/faculty/douglas-yeo/

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