Rhodes grew up in Dunkirk, Ohio and received A.B. and Bachelor of Music degrees from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He received an M.A. from Columbia University in 1929. In France, he studied with Nadia Boulanger. From 1937 to 1969, he served as a professor at Columbia University, where he founded the graduate program in ethnomusicology, and co-founded the Society for Ethnomusicology, serving as that organization's first president.
A collection of Rhodes' recordings and other materials is held by the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
A selection of American Indian music, chosen by Rhodes, was released on the Voyager Golden Record (1977).
- Christensen, Dieter (1992). "Willard Rhodes 1901-1992." Yearbook for Traditional Music, vol. 24, pp. xii-xiii.
- Korson, Rae, and Joseph C. Hickerson (1969). "The Willard Rhodes Collection of American Indian Music in the Archive of Folk Song." Ethnomusicology, vol. 13, no. 2 (May 1969), pp. 296–304.
- McAllester, David P. (1993). "Obituary: Willard Rhodes (1901-1992)." Ethnomusicology, vol. 37, no. 2 (Spring 1993), pp. 251–262.
- Rhodes, Willard (1952). "Acculturation in North American Indian Music." In Acculturation in the Americas: Proceedings and Selected Papers of the 29th International Congress of Americanists, ed. Sol Tax, with an introduction by Melville J. Herskovits, p. 127-132. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Rhodes, Willard (1952). "Songs of American Indians Still Live." The New York Times, November 23, 1952, sec. 2, p. 7.