Unveiling the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s “Wall of Honor”

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 10.47.44 AMAny project as ambitious as our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project cannot happen in a vacuum, nor can it succeed without the willing hands and open hearts of a broad range of supporters, and after almost a decade’s worth of work toward preserving America’s black gospel heritage, we’ve made significant progress thanks to the support of literally dozens of people.

They are collectors, benefactors, private citizens with small collections to loan, major foundations with capital to invest in the equipment, talent and time it takes to advance the BGMRP from semester to semester. And we thought it’s high time they got some recognition on the project’s website. So, we’re happy to unveil the BGMRP Wall of Honor, a virtual listing of the backers big and small who’ve helped make it a success.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 10.35.25 AM

Click on the image to view the entire Wall of Honor!

Each supporter’s name is placed on a label from a 45 rpm disk from the collection and the whole wall is organized alphabetically. The label associated with each supporter is randomly assigned, hence the quilt-like appearance to the entire Wall.

While it’s only a small token of our appreciation to these fine folks, we hope it helps drive home the importance of community support for projects like the BGMRP. And if you’d like to see your name on the wall – after you’ve loaned/donated materials or supported the project financially – we’ve got plenty of opportunities for you to show your support.

We hope to see the Wall continue to grow as the project continues to flourish, and with each news story, interview, public presentation or one-on-one conversation we have about the BGMRP, we’re seeing its importance and influence spread across the country. And the nice thing about a “virtual” donor wall vs. a physical wall? There’s literally no end to space we can use to feature anyone who shows their support!

The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project is an attempt to catalog, digitize, preserve and promote America’s black gospel music heritage, with a focus on the “Golden Age” of 1945-1975. Learn more about the project, including how you can support our goals, by visiting the project website.

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.


An Open Letter to Darius Rucker Re: The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project


Dear Mr. Rucker,

Allow us to introduce ourselves. We are the Digital Projects Group, five dedicated professionals in the world of digital collections in academia, specifically Baylor University in Waco, Texas. You probably don’t know who we are, but we know you’re familiar with Baylor: you and your buddies in Hootie and the Blowfish played a huge concert here in 2005, as evidenced by this photo and article from our campus newspaper, the Baylor Lariat:

Vintage you (and your buddies) from the December 1, 2005 "Lariat"

Vintage you (and your buddies) from the December 1, 2005 “Lariat”

But we’re not writing today to relive the glory days of Waco’s early 2000s music scene. Our goal is to pique your interest in our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, about which we’ve written extensively on this blog, and you may have seen featured on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and in various publications across the country. It’s even going to be a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open on the National Mall in 2016.

The reason we see this as something that might be of interest actually harkens back to a bonus track featured on the Blowfishes’ seminal 1994 album Cracked Rear View. Tucked away at the end is a beautiful a cappella rendition of the traditional Negro spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. We know YOU know what that sounded like, but for our readers who may not have experienced it yet, here’s a version from YouTube.

It’s impossible to say just how much emotion, history and tradition are embodied in that 54-second clip. According to Wikipedia, this particular song dates back to as late as the 1870s, with an early documented version showing up in 1899. It has particular resonance for African Americans given its ties to the destructive era of slavery in our country, but it also holds universal appeal to anyone who’s felt alone, lost and without a destination beyond the hoped-for “home” beyond this earthly life.

Our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project contains a dozen different versions of this song performed by artists ranging from Willa Dorsey to the Singing Stars of Louisburg, North Carolina (a short five-hour drive up the road from your native Charleston, South Carolina, as the map below indicates).

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 11.46.58 AM

In case you were interested in a road trip!

Of all the versions of that song to be found in the BGMRP, we are partial to the one recorded by the Malcom Dobbs Singers ca. 1963 for their album Great Spirituals. It is spare – only vocals, a timpano and an ethereal organ – but it contains a world of emotion, and it builds to a satisfying payoff of grandness tinged with sorrow. Take a listen below.

(Copyright RCA Camden, all rights reserved. See the full item in our Digital Collection for more information.)

Whichever version you prefer, it’s obvious to us that you felt a connection to this song, and we wanted to take a moment to point out its prominence in a collection we are very proud of. We hope you’re able to discover a new version you hadn’t heard before, and we hope our collection helps further your love of American gospel music.

We’re certainly not asking for anything on your part – you can consider this a publicly available version of an FYI – but if you were to, say, offer to come back to Waco and grace us with a concert of your favorite gospel-inspired songs, we certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that. (But seriously, if you want to talk, drop us an email: digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu.)

Best wishes on a successful tour of the UK!

Your friends in the Baylor University Digital Projects Group

This post is part of a series of Open Letters to musicians, authors and others that we hope will connect our collections to prominent people in America. If you have someone to suggest, or if you’re the subject of this post and want to drop us a line, send us an email (digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu).

For more information on Darius Rucker’s music, including available discs, upcoming shows and info on his latest release of Christmas music called Home for the Holidays, visit his website.

This Train is Bound for D.C.: The Smithsonian-Baylor Digital Projects Group Black Gospel Collaboration Confirmed!


Our thoughts on today’s news, as captured by this album from The Trumpets of Jericho.

Some big news regarding the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project was made official this weekend via the social media of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC): the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), managed and maintained by our own Digital Projects Group, will become part of the permanent collection when the museum opens its doors in 2015!

According to the story from the NMAAHC’s Tumblr, we will contribute highlights from the collection for incorporation into an exhibition called the Musical Crossroads. From the Tumblr:

This permanent exhibition will tell the story of African American music from the arrival of the first Africans to the present day.

Both [NMAAHC curator Dr. Dwandalyn] Reece and [Baylor journalism professor Robert] Darden see these recordings as important additions to the new museum for the stories they can help tell. While planning for the exhibition is ongoing, the Baylor recordings may be used to explore the importance of gospel music to the civil rights movement.

Featuring select recordings from Baylor’s growing digital collection in the Smithsonian will give visitors an opportunity to learn these stories and to listen to many gospel recordings that may otherwise have been lost to history.

Dr. Reece also pointed out the ways is in which materials from the BGMRP can help us better understand the impact of black gospel music at a regional level:

The recordings may also be used to highlight the regional diversity of early gospel music. “Not all gospel recordings made during the pinnacle of gospel’s popularity were made on major labels,” Reece explained. “Many were done in connection with local churches and there are differences in style based on where these types of recordings were made.”

The collaboration announcement post, via the NMAAHC’s Tumblr page.

The project was sparked in 2005 by an op-ed piece written by Prof. Darden for the February 15 edition. In it, he bemoaned the loss of America’s recorded collections of black gospel music. That appeal generated a lead gift from collector Charles M. Royce that funded equipment and the first audiovisual specialist, Tony Tadey. From there, Prof. Darden’s tireless promotion combined with the technological and information handling mastery of the DPG to create a collection of more than 8,000 digitized tracks, 1,200 of which are available online with more added regularly. (For more on the history of the project, please visit the project website.)

We are obviously quite excited to be partnering with an institution with such an august reputation and world-wide name recognition as the Smithsonian Institution, and we look forward to working closely with Dr. Reece and her team at the NMAAHC in the coming months.

The Digital Projects Group is a part of the Electronic Library, a special collection within the Baylor University Libraries. DPG staff involved with the BGMRP are Assistant Director for Digital Projects Group, Darryl Stuhr; Audiovisual Specialist, Stephen Bolech; Digital Collections Curator, Eric Ames; and Digitization Coordinator, Allyson Riley.

For More Information

Read the NMAAHC’s Tumblr post

Read our previous blog post about the partnership

Visit the BGMRP homepage

View the BGMRP collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections

Visit the NMAAHC website

Email us at digitalcollectionsinfo[at]baylor.edu

An Update on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

All good things require patience, as the Evangelistic Soul Seekers well knew, given the title of this ca. 1965 track.

If you’ve been reading the local newspapers of late – the Waco Tribune-Herald and our on-campus daily, the Baylor Lariat – you’ve seen Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP) get some generous front-page coverage. This publicity has centered around last week’s Pruit Symposium, a two-day affair held at Truett Seminary celebrating the project and the impact of black gospel music on American culture.

One of the most tantalizing possibilities being discussed is the possibility of sharing content from the BGMRP with the still-in-development National Museum of African American Culture and Heritage (NMAACH), the newest project of the Smithsonian Institution. The NMAACH is currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (check out their live construction cam here!) and is scheduled to open in 2015.

In recent months, several members of the project – most notably Prof. Robert Darden of the Baylor University Journalism Dept. and Tim Logan, Associate Vice President for the Electronic Library – have been in talks with staff at the NMAACH about potential ways to integrate content from the BGMRP into an exhibit on black gospel music at the museum. These discussions have focused on ways to provide unique content from the project for access by patrons visiting the museum’s exhibits. While these discussions are in the very early stages, we have received positive feedback on working together to explore ways in which this partnership might benefit NMAACH visitors and further the goals of the BGMRP.

One thing that will not change, regardless the outcome of discussions with the Smithsonian, is the way in which the important work of gathering, digitizing and presenting online the materials from the BGMRP is being done. The project will stay at Baylor University, and it will continue to be carried out by members of the Digital Projects Group – a group housed in the Electronic Library, a special collection of the Baylor University Libraries. Control of the project will continue to reside with Baylor faculty and library staff.

Obviously, we are excited about the interest being generated in this important project, and we look forward to finding new ways – and partnerships – to promote the BGMRP and its impact on scholarship, research and enjoyment by people around the world. We look forward to sharing more details on the project’s growth and development as they are solidified, and we encourage you to direct any questions, ideas or offers to assist the project to digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu.

Baylor University Libraries staff members involved with the project are:

–       Darryl Stuhr: Assistant Director for Digital Projects Group

–       Stephen Bolech: Audiovisual Digitization Specialist

–       Kara Scott: Metadata Librarian

–       Eric Ames: Curator of Digital Collections

–       Allyson Riley: Digitization Coordinator

–       DPG graduate assistants and undergraduate student workers

For more information on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, please visit http://www.baylor.edu/lib/gospel. The publicly accessible collection may be found at http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/fa-gospel30.