Friday Extra: Why Scream When You Can Shout!

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-8-59-58-amIf this first full week of October has been stressful, tiring or just plain exhausting, take heart! A new series of 2-minute segments called Shout! Black Gospel Music Moments has begun airing on Waco’s local NPR affiliate, KWBU-FM. Hosted by Robert Darden, they will feature stories from the Golden Age of Gospel (1945-1975) and will rely on music from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project for their inspiration.

Shout! currently airs on KWBU Sundays at 8:35 AM and Mondays at 6:32 PM. The segments are being made available to other public radio stations around the country, so check your local listings.

Learn more about the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project from our homepage.

The Scene at the Crossroads: A Peek at Baylor’s Presence in the NMAAHC

bgmrp_nmaahc_slideFriends of the blog have long known – since 2013, to be exact – that material from our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project would become part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). And now, as the museum is set to open its doors on September 24, 2016, we are excited to offer an exclusive look at how those materials are displayed in the museum’s new Musical Crossroads exhibit.

This sneak peek is made possible due to two of Baylor’s own – Dean of Libraries/VP for Information Technology Pattie Orr and Prof. Robert Darden – receiving an invitation to attend a pre-opening event at the NMAAHC on September 17. Pattie and Bob were able to see firsthand how the BGMRP materials were integrated into the exhibits, and Pattie’s husband Steve helpfully shared photographs of the exhibit for this post.

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Introductory panel for the Musical Crossroads exhibit (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

Visitors to the NMAAHC will find the story of African Americans and their culture written in ways large and intimate, personal and cultural, and one of the biggest elements of that story is the way music drawn from the black tradition has had a major impact on American society since the earliest roots of our country.

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Visitors examine a large touchscreen interactive in the Neighborhood Record Store exhibit, NMAAHC (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

In a section of the exhibit called the Neighborhood Record Store, visitors are presented with a large touchscreen “table” detailing information on the various styles of music embraced by the African American experience.

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A closer view of the interactive. The disc label for The Mighty Wonders’ “Old Ship of Zion” from the BGMRP is visible in lower left. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

Along the bottom of the interactive are a number of musical genres – blues, country, sacred, classical, etc. – that includes a gospel category. Tapping on that tab will pull up information about The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland and their song “Old Ship of Zion,” long associated with the BGMRP (and the de facto anthem of the project). Visitors can then hear a sample clip of the audio of “Old Ship,” as well as view a photo of the group.

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Dean of Libraries/VP for Information Technology Pattie Orr (left) and Prof. Robert Darden (right) view the BGMRP materials in the interactive touchscreen. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

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Closeup of “Old Ship of Zion” information from touchscreen interactive. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

Also featured in the exhibit are images of album jackets provided by the project. Visitors can browse through “bins” of sample records in various genres, harkening back to the days when record store customers were spend hours browsing through bins filled with the latest releases.

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Bob Darden and Pattie Orr stand with a “bin” containing copies of album covers from the BGMRP. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)

 

After more than four years of discussions, file sharing, digitization, permissions granting and plenty of logistical conversations, it is truly rewarding to see materials from the BGMRP making their big debut at the NMAAHC. As the project enters its second decade dedicated to collecting, cataloging, preserving and providing access to materials from America’s black gospel music heritage, we are truly grateful to be a part of not only Baylor Nation but, in some small way, the history of the nation itself.


 

For More Information

Read our previous blog post about the partnership with the NMAAHC

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

Perfect Delight: The Inaugural Voices & Vinyl Concert!

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After months of planning and hours of rehearsal by our friends in the Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir, our Voices & Vinyl concert was held on Thursday, December 3rd in the Moody Memorial Library Allbritton foyer.

It was, to be perfectly frank, a complete success from our point of view.

A sizable crowd of students, faculty, staff and passers-through filled the lobby as the performance began. As the choir members’ voices began their harmonious blending, more and more curious onlookers stopped to take in the sights and sounds of the day’s events.

The program for V&V 2015 featured four remixed versions of songs from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project:

> Joy To The World, inspired by the 1988 cast performance of Black Nativity
>
Swing Low Sweet Chariot, inspired by the 1958 recording by The Ward Sisters
> The Little Drummer Boy, inspired by the 1987 recording by Cleophus Robinson
> Blessed Assurance, inspired by the 1960 recording by The Caravans

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Here is a short overview of the day’s proceedings in video form:


Voices & Vinyl Videos
These videos contain footage, raw audio and photographs recorded during Voices & Vinyl, as well as clips of the original songs from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project that inspired the Heavenly Voices’ performance.


Voices and Vinyl 2015 In Pictures
Click photos to enlarge

The success of this inaugural outing of Voices & Vinyl will hopefully lead to further collaborations between the Digital Projects Group and the Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir, as well as other student groups interested in using the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project as a springboard for inspiration and new scholarship.

We want to thank the members of Heavenly Voices, the folks at ITS/Libraries Marketing and everyone who had a hand in spreading the word about V&V. And thanks to all of you, our blog readers, for your support in this exciting new event. We hope to be writing about VandV for years to come right here at the DPG blog!

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.

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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 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.