Cliff Barrows died on Tuesday. He was the song leader for the Billy Graham evangelistic team. But he was much more.

I don’t know how I’d ever document this, but I’m convinced that Barrows became the model for two generations of fundamentalist and evangelical song leaders. In doing so, he transformed the gospel song tradition that he had received.

The idea first occurred to me years ago as the result of a conversation with a retired music professor in a Christian college. This man had trained at least two generations of fundamentalist song leaders. As he reminisced about his influence, he commented that he had modeled his song leading “after the style of Cliff Barrows.” I asked what that meant, and he went on to name some of the elements that Barrows had introduced.

Song leading occupies a narrow place in evangelical history. Traditional churches did not have song leaders–the congregation followed the organ. Folk churches tended to sing by call and response. Contemporary churches don’t have song leaders at all. Song leading appears to have been widely practiced mainly in American evangelicalism (including fundamentalism) from some point after the Second Great Awakening down through the 1970s. It began to die out in the 1980s and is almost gone now.

Barrows teamed up with Graham in 1947. Effectively, the team brought the electricity of the youth rally into the evangelistic campaign. Barrows’ approach to the song service was pivotal to the success of that maneuver. He mastered the technique of drawing people into the song service, of getting people who usually didn’t sing at all to lift their voices with abandon. If song leading is an art, Barrows probably represented its apex.