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 theĀ 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.

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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.

 

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