On the Impermanence of a Waco Snow

It snowed in Waco on Wednesday morning. Don’t believe me? Check social media – almost everyone in the 254 area code posted something about it. This Vine from colleague David Taylor provides a nice summation:

It made for a pretty display, but by noon, the sun was coming out and the snowfall had either melted into the ground or evaporated into the Central Texas sky.

The whole thing put me in a mind to think about the question of permanence: not just in the collections we create or in the social media we utilize to promote them, but in the scattershot approach some take when they choose to create them in the first place.

What makes a good digital collection? Is it comprised of the rarest materials? Those most requested by researchers? The largest holdings? The ones we think will get us the most attention from funding sources and influential agencies? Frequently, the answer is, E.) All of the Above. We choose to create digital collections from the source material that resonates with the most people, strikes the deepest chord, furthers the most research; and sometimes, we hit a rare sweet spot and see our efforts enshrined in an institution tasked with the protection of our nation’s most important cultural treasures.

But for every Smithsonian-bound collection we create, there are others whose importance may be less nationally important, less grandly proportioned and even less fully understood. Are they any less important to create and maintain? I suppose that depends on whom you ask. Does a collection of posters swept up from the bloodstained streets of Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom have less impact because it only contains eight items? Does a collection of tens of thousands of JFK assassination-related documents carry more weight simply because it’s so large?

Making everything more complicated is the question of long-term access to digital assets. Every collection we create is like adding another child to an already bustling family, an obligation we take on to feed, clothe and care for those digital surrogates “forever and ever, amen.” Sure, storage is cheap and bandwidth around these parts is speedy, but we’ve grown to such a size now (almost 70 publicly accessible collections to date) that it means taking a good, long look at every candidate for digitization before we commit to adding them to our “family.”

So, back to our central question: how do we decide what makes the list? We rely heavily on the expertise and judgment of our special collections colleagues, of course; after all, they are the professionals tasked with preserving and providing access to the physical versions of the digital collections we create, so they would be the place to start. But we also take other voices into account, like the needs of undergraduate students, graduate students, scholars around the world and the occasional request for help found in the local media.

The whole goal, of course, is to create a permanently accessible digital asset for use by anyone with access to the Internet. We’ve certainly done that, to the tune of 250,000+ unique items placed online via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections. And we have no plans to stop, either. So long as there’s a collection we all agree will benefit the greater web, we’ll be here to scan it and reserve its URL. But we’ve progressed from the “scan it if it’s not nailed down” approach of our wilder, younger years into a reasoned, methodical approach based on the likelihood of a collection’s interest to the world, a focus on categorically unique items and creating curated sets of items based on item type, not collection scope. To extend the familial metaphor, we’ve traded our modest starter home for a well-appointed house in the thriving part of town: solid, inviting and built to last.

So if you’ll continue to indulge us as we place ever-larger numbers of 1’s and 0’s into the greater Internet, we’ll keep on doing so, with an aim to provide greater access to Baylor’s unique archival heritage well into our staff’s collective sunset years.

And unlike the refreshing novelty of this week’s snowfall, we have every reason to believe that the impact of what we do won’t be forgotten when the wind changes.

Stepping on Board with The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland

mighty_wonders_post_headerSince the early days of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, we’ve been intrigued by a version of “Old Ship of Zion” by the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland. Intrigued, because it’s a soulful, a cappella rendering of a song that offers a surefire way to salvation (“Step on board if you want to see Jesus”) and because we knew next to nothing about them … until now.

The Song

This particular song has been part of our public presentations for years. Prof. Robert Darden, who often serves as the public face of our project, has used it as a closing – and occasionally an opening – song for his story of how the project is an important means of preserving America’s black gospel heritage. He uses it because of its unusual format: only vocals, multi-part harmony voices in a church choir style, no musical accompaniment. The lyrics use a nautical analogy – getting on board a ship to the Promised Land – to paint a picture of the way to Salvation.

‘Tis the old ship of Zion
‘Tis the old ship of Zion
‘Tis the old ship of Zion
Step on board if you want to see Jesus
Step on board if you want to see Jesus
Just step on board and follow me

There’s nothing but love in God’s water
Nothing but love in God’s water
Nothing but love in God’s water
Step on board if you want to see Jesus
Step on board if you want to see Jesus
Just step on board and follow me

It is simple, short and poignant, with a nice blend of backing harmonies and no vocal theatrics from lead vocalist John Stewart, Jr. And every time we play it, the room comes to a dead stop, all ears tuned in to the voices of these men from Maryland, more than a thousand miles away – and a generation removed – from Waco, Texas.

But aside from what we could glean from the 45’s label (namely, that it was published by Mark Custom Records in Arlington, VA and featured soloist Stewart, Jr.), we didn’t have anything else to go on, and despite how many times Prof. Darden and the rest of our team told the story of “Old Ship,” we were stuck when it came to the Mighty Wonders’ story.

The Story in the Sun

Earlier this year, Prof. Darden did an interview with Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun. Dan’s interest in the story came because Aquasco lies about 90 minutes south of Baltimore, and because he was interested in helping scare up some information on the Mighty Wonders for his readers, his listeners on WYPR-FM and friends of this project. His article, “Seeking the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, singers of one fine gospel tune,” was posted on January 24. Five days later, we received an email at our public address (digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu) from a man who said he had a way for us to get ahold of the group. A follow-up email exchange later, and we were on the phone with Tom Contee, a Mighty Wonder himself.

The Phone Call

Contee told me over the phone that he had seen the story in the Sun and had spoken to his nephew, the man who originally emailed us with the offer to help. Contee graciously spoke with me for the next half hour, sharing the story of how he joined the band, the recording of the 45 (“Old Ship of Zion” and its flip side, “How Far Am I From Canaan?”) and the names of the remaining members of the group.

Contee said he joined the group in 1970, a few years after its formation. As they gained more attention in the local area, they decided to record a 45 and sell it as a fundraiser for the band. That 45 was the “Old Ship/Canaan” pressing, recorded in 1971 or 1972. The group sold the 45 at concerts and to family members, but aside from word of mouth, they made no attempt to get radio play for the songs and relied on “love offerings” from the churches where they performed as payment for their services. Contee said one early goal was to buy matching suits – “shirts, suits, ties, the whole thing” – for all nine members of the group because they saw it as a way to increase their professional appearance and bring them closer together.

And the Mighty Wonders were a close-knit group, according to Contee. They had to be, because from early fall through early summer for years they were performing up to three programs every Sunday in churches around the Baltimore area. None of the members had any formal training in singing or performing. They simply took what they’d seen at their home churches and broadened it into a multi-part vocal group. They took turns singing lead, with two members – John Stewart and Alfred Johnson – doing the honors more often than the others. But, Contee said, on some occasions a member would know a song better than the others, and he would step up to take lead for that particular song or performance. All in all, it was a way for the men to sing the songs they liked in the style they liked, and it suited them well.

Over time, three members of the group passed away, and one has since retired to Florida. But Contee told me that a recent revival of the Mighty Wonders is under way: five of the original nine members have begun performing again after a special engagement at bassist Ernest Johnson, Jr.’s father’s church. The celebration for members of the congregation aged 90 and older gave the Mighty Wonders a chance to shine again, and Contee said that led to further appeals for their performing abilities, so the Wonders are back on stage, singing a capella songs in the style of “Old Ship of Zion.”

A World Premiere

Out of our conversation came this exciting bit of news: Contee had a copy of the Mighty Wonder’s second 45, and he was more than happy to send it to us for inclusion in the BGMRP, a project which he said he was excited to find out about, and that he thinks is doing a wonderful service for gospel music. (His words, not ours!) And so, we are proud to present here, for the first time online, the second 45 from The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland: “Old Time Religion” and the b-side, “I Shall Not Be Moved.”


Learn more about this 45 and see the whole item record in the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s collection in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections here.

The Next Step?

I made a not-so-subtle suggestion to Mr. Contee that we here at Baylor would love to see the Mighty Wonders grace the stage at an event right here in Waco, and while he seemed a bit surprised to hear me say so, he certainly didn’t rule it out. Perhaps the trick of finding them was our first big challenge and the task of getting these men to honor us with a public performance is our encore.

Regardless, we say to the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland: take a bow, gentlemen. You’ve certainly earned it.

***

Learn more about the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at our webpage. Special tanks to Dan Rodricks, Bob Darden, Tony Tadey, Bob Marovich and most importantly Tom Contee, for making this post possible.

 

A January Mystery: What Was “The Promoters” and Who Was Betsy Bolivar?

Sometimes inspiration strikes in strange ways. Take this week’s blog post, for example: while conducting a simple search in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections for terms related to the new year – New Year, January, cold as a well digger’s elbow, etc. – I came across a piece from the Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music titled, In January I Love Mabel.

"In January I Love Mabel" cover, ca. 1909

“In January I Love Mabel” cover, ca. 1909

 

“That sounds interesting,” I thought to myself, so I clicked into the item and checked out the lyrics.

I’ve a loving disposition, I’ve put sorrow on the shelf
I believe in that old maxim “Love your neighbor as yourself”
Now, it happens that my neighbors are a bunch of girls divine
And their views upon the subject are identical to mine
But to love them all together would I’m sure create a fuss
So to head off squally weather, I’ve arranged to love them thus.

CHORUS

In January I love Mabel, in February I love Lou,
In March, little Fay, in April and May, I cuddle both Irene and Sue
In June and in July I’ve Rose and Lily, in August and September Flo and Doll,
October and November, Jess and Bess, but please remember
In December I’m not stingy, so I love them all

Quite a very good arrangement, I have found my plan to be
When of number two I’m weary, bliss I find in number three
Then again the girl for Summer, not to speak of Spring of Fall
In the dreary days of Winter simply will not do at all
Girls are more are less like flowers, at their best a month or so
I have studied well the subject and I think I ought to know

Hoo boy, that’s a lot to take in.

Leaving aside the blatantly lunkheaded (and borderline misogynistic) lyrics, it conjures up a number of questions.

1.) Who is the protagonist of this piece? What makes him think he’s so special as to have a different lady for every month of the year?
2.) Was this meant to be a serious piece (surely not!) or is it an example of early 1900s satire, humor or light comedy stylings?
3.) Why can’t a girl who’s perfectly acceptable in the summer be found adequate in the winter?
4.) Just where in the world did this piece come from?

While the first three questions may require a little digging, it was the answer to the fourth that led me down a rabbit trail with no good answers and became the basis for this post.

Ward and Vokes and The Promoters

A quick glance at the cover for the piece reveals it to be part of a stage production called The Promoters, created by the comedy duo of Ward and Vokes. According to a post on the Performing Arts Archive, Hap Ward and Harry Vokes were vaudeville performers whose comedy show partnership lasted more than thirty years.  The men would have been in their early forties in 1909, the year The Promoters would likely have debuted.

As is common with many, many pieces from the Spencer Collection, In January I Love Mabel featured an inset on the cover that lists other pieces from The Promoters’ score, including tracks called They All Started to Move, My Sunbeam Maid, If I Could Only Find A Little Girl Like You and a somewhat befuddling piece called Betsy Bolivar.

It turns out, we’ve added a scan of Betsy Bolivar to the Spencer Collection, so perhaps a quick recounting of its lyrics will give us some clues to the nature of The Promoters. To wit:

 Betsy B. was young and simple, Betsy was a dunce
All the boys, on viewing Betsy, fell in love at once
One she met, who pleased her greatly till in jest he spoke,
Said “my dear, it would appear, you’re not quite city broke.”

CHORUS

Oh, you Betsy, Betsy Bolivar,
Tho’ you’ve never been out at night, You’ll get along all right, all right.
For oh, you Betsy, What a Queen you are,
“I may be a rube, but I’m no boob,” said Betsy Bolivar.

Betsy wandered to the city, where she rubber’d ’round,
City chaps were different from the boys at home she found,
Ev’ry day it seemed to her she stood for, so to speak,
More falls than you could see at old Niagara in a week

Oh, you Betsy, Betsy Bolivar,
Tho’ you’ve never been out at night, You’ll get along all right, all right.
For oh, you Betsy, What a Queen you are,
“For a girl so young I’m pretty well stung,” Said Betsy Bolivar.

And it goes on like this for three more verses. Take a look for yourself!

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 1.25.20 PMSo Betsy’s not a much more appealing character than our nameless paramour from In January, I Love Mabel. Her main attributes seem to be that she’s a pretty, dark-haired girl who’s not too bright but whose physical charms are more than ample to snag the attention of a baseball pitcher … until she uses “bleacherine” to dye her “koko-covering” (hair) and it turns out a “lovely shade of green.”

All of this plays pretty handily into stereotypes found throughout the early 20th century stage pieces found in the Spencer Collection, particularly the light comedies, comedic operas and vaudeville productions. What makes it more interesting is that the music for both pieces was composed by Anne Caldwell, a prolific writer of Broadway and popular music who happened to be married to James O’Dea – the lyricist for both pieces from The Promoters.

What does all this mean? Probably not much. After all, it’s a play so unimportant that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. (In a time when events as obscure as the Kentucky meat shower have entries, it takes a lot to be so disposable.) But wouldn’t it be fun to imagine what the general outline of the story must have been, based solely on the lyrics to these two pieces (and the titles of the remaining five)? Here’s my take!


Act I

We open on a young man dressed in the height of early 1900’s fashion as he sits on a bench in a crowded city scene. He bemoans his lack of success in finding a suitable mate and sings a song of lament to the cover of his favorite magazine: an image of a raven-haired young woman of stunning beauty (If I Could Only Find A Little Girl Like You). After his song is finished, he realizes he is running late for an appointment and begins to run through the crowded streets toward a streetcar stand. Just as he arrives, the crowd around the stand parts (They All Started To Move) and our hero sees a woman standing inside a departing streetcar. She is beautiful, with dark hair and arresting blue eyes. He is immediately smitten but dismayed as the streetcar pulls away before he can climb aboard.

Act II

The scene opens on the woman from the streetcar as she walks through the door of her small but stylish apartment. She, too, is suffering from a case of amorous upset, but her particular malady is that she still pines for a boy from her hometown who came to the big city years ago and with whom she has lost contact. As she swoops around her apartment, she belts out a song of lament (Because I Love You Truly) and dreams of the day she will reunite with her lost love somewhere on the streets of the Big City, far from her small-town roots.

After her big number is finished, she slips behind a changing screen and reemerges dressed for her shift at the local small appliance manufacturer where she works the midnight shift while hoping to break into show business as a model or actress. The scene changes, and the girl is seen working a shift on a production line, where she fits covers onto electric toasters. The other women on the line sing a silly song about the girl who is too pretty to work in manufacturing (My Sunbeam Maid), but she is oblivious to the fact that they are singing about her! The scene ends with the girl leaving the factory at the end of her shift. As she walks through the factory gates, she is spotted by an unscrupulous talent agent (one of the promoters of the show’s title) who recruits her to work a job as a model for a local clothing store. The girl gleefully accepts the offer and runs off-stage toward her apartment.

Act III

It is three years later, and the girl – whose name is Betsy Bolivar – has become a world-famous actress on the stage. She is known for her stunning good looks and goofy demeanor, but she is still brokenhearted over the loss of connection with her hometown beau. In a neat bit of staging, we see Betsy sitting at a dressing table backstage for her latest big show, while in the audience is none other than our lovestruck young man from Act I!

As Betsy primps backstage, the young man sings a song to his companions about the world-renowned beauty who will grace the stage in mere moments: Betsy Bolivar. As he sings, Betsy comes onto the stage and performs a comedic dance number to her eponymous tune. The young man is transfixed: it’s the girl from the streetcar, all those years ago! He still hasn’t forgotten her; in fact, he’s more in love than ever, and he takes the opportunity to sneak backstage after the show and tell her so by means of a ridiculous song about his vain search to find a suitable companion (In January I Love Mabel), which is obviously a poor replacement for a lifelong attachment to Betsy, his one true love.

And now, the big twist: it turns out the young man is none other than the boy from Betsy’s hometown, gone all these years to “make it big in the Big City!” Betsy is delighted, and the two instantly reconnect as they sing a duet reprise of Because I Love You Truly. The scene ends with Betsy and the young man in a fond embrace as the curtain falls on their reunited love. Aaaaaaaand, scene!


If all of that sounds farfetched, I encourage you to go read the synopses for practically any boy-meets-girl stage production from the period and you’ll see it’s not entirely off base.

And now it’s your turn: if you’ve got an alternative storyline for our heroes from In January, I Love Mabel and Betsy Bolivar, leave them in the comments below. You’re a creative bunch; don’t let me down!

***

For more pieces from the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, visit the collection’s homepage.

A New Year, A Major New Collection: “The Baptist Argus” Project Completed, Available Online

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 10.09.57 AM

Welcome to a new year of digital collections excellence here at the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections Blog. We’re kicking off 2015 by announcing the completion of a multi-year project: The Baptist Argus / The Baptist World newspaper collection! Through a partnership with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, we are pleased to present a full run of the newspaper, which began in 1897 and ran until August of 1919.

The Argus (which was renamed The Baptist World in 1909) was a weekly newspaper dedicated to covering events and news related to American Baptists, particularly in the South. It contained a blend of editorial content, news stories, advertisements and even the occasional work of poetry. For members of the Baptist church at the turn of the last century, the Argus was a welcome source of information on the doings of the church both domestically and abroad.

The digital collection features 1,131 issues of the Argus, from its first issue to its last. All are keyword searchable as the text has been recognized using OCR (optical character recognition) software, making it easy to search the thousands of pages of newsprint. Thanks to the OCR’d text, researchers can locate instances of words or phrases in seconds instead of the hours of tedious close reading that were necessary before the completion of this project.

We believe this collection will further enhance studies in the development of the Baptist identity in America, as well as its impact on the religious communities planted and sustained by Baptist missionaries around the world. We are also hopeful that scholars will use the resources available in the Argus/World collection to provide new insight into how journalism and religious belief worked together to advance the cause of Christ via the printed page. The possibilities for this collection are many, and we are excited to provide the raw material for scholars, researchers and believers of all stripes via this new collection.


Access the Baptist Argus / Baptist World collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections here. For more information on the Baptist Argus / Baptist World, read its Wikipedia entry. Special thanks to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for providing the print copies of the materials in this collection; we literally could not have completed this project without your help!

P.S. What do you think of the new look? We figured, “It’s January, everybody’s trying to freshen things up, why not?”

P.P.S. Fire the cannon!

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Wrapping Up Another Great Year: 2014 In Review

 

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Image from the December 14, 1911 edition of “The Baptist World” and a clue to the first blog post of 2015!

 

Well, folks, we’ve come to the end of another year of pixels, projects and professional musings here at the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections Blog. And after three years of weekly blog posts, we are excited to report that 2014 was our biggest ever, with 7,591 unique users accessing the blog more than 9,000 times since January 1! (For the record, the most popular post for 2013 was Twilight of an Icon: Floyd Casey Stadium in Transition. Re-read it and remember why!)

When you add in the fact that we are now at 225 Facebook users and 3,994 followers on Tumblr, it’s easy to see why we’re excited about the way this year progressed for us. But we simply could not have done this without you, our blog readers, and for that, we are very thankful.

So, this week’s message is brief. We want to thank you all for your support, for spreading the word about our projects and for being our online advocates for the work we’re doing to promote the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections. We look forward to continuing to provide unparalleled excellence in digital collections, contextual information and scholarly outreach in the coming year.

 

DPG_2014_Christmas_Photo

Christmas cheer, personified.