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.

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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.

 

The Power Behind the Call: Examining the Rhetorical and Presentation Styles of G.W. Truett’s Sermons

This is the second installment in a special three-part blog series on the project to digitize and present online the final sermons of George W. Truett (1867-1944), noted pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and namesake of Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Read the previous installment here

The human voice is a powerful medium, surpassing the printed word in its ability to bestir, to convince, to cajole and – in the case of a pastor’s words to his congregation – to save. In a preliterate society the power of speech was the sole means of conveying an idea, rousing a people or sending along the latest gossip. And even after humans gained the skills to write down our thoughts via print and share them with others who spoke the same language, we find ourselves captivated, spellbound by someone with an ability to spin ideas from spoken syllables, to offer hope by the combination of his mind, his tongue and his vocal chords.

Perhaps that’s why there is such power in the recorded sermons of George W. Truett. It’s true that you can get the gist of his message by reading a transcript, either from our digital collection or in one of the many publications that cited his words. But nothing can replace the impact, the instinctive reaction that comes with listening to them, as clear as the day they were recorded over 70 years ago. Truett’s voice may occasionally waver, his cadence and phraseology may sound distinctly Southern and turn-of-the-19th-century, but when he infuses even a simple phrase or concept with the force of his well-honed speaking voice, it assumes an authority that can only come from a speaker who is supremely confident in what he has to say.

Building a Successful Sermon

Now that we’ve loaded approximately one-third of the sermons in the G.W. Truett Sermons Collection, a pattern has begun to emerge in the items I’ve encountered to date. While the content of each sermon is unique – covering everything from the Lord’s Prayer to Old Testament prophets and the application of contemporary world events with those experienced by the ancient Hebrews – the pattern of Truett’s delivery follows a noticeable pattern.

  • Opening/Announcement
  • Scripture reading
  • Main point one
  • Side point
  • Anecdote
  • Main point two
  • Anecdote
  • Main point three
  • Altar call
  • Dismissal/Hymn sing-out (occasionally)

It is tempting to label this approach as formulaic, but one must recall that Truett had been preaching for the better part of four decades by the time of these sermons’ delivery in 1941, so to a certain extent they must have come almost by second nature. In fact, while googling a number of passages delivered by Truett in this sermons, I came across several nearly word-for-word matches cited in books published in the early twentieth century. Why? Because they contained transcripts of sermons Truett had delivered as far back as 1917, the content of which was delivered almost verbatim in the 1940s. That makes his 1941 versions seem more like fond reminiscences of a life spent delivering God’s Word and less like rote repetition of a memorized formula.

Portrait of George W. Truett from the narthex of Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University.

Recurring Themes, Surprising Candor

In today’s megachurch society, with its emphasis on the “gospel of prosperity” and the myriad interpretations of what it means to be a Christian, listening to G.W. Truett’s firebrand Baptist delivery can be an eye-opening experience. He makes no bones about the foundation for his entire ministry:

Let me begin my message today by saying, quite personally, that for 40-odd years it has been my sacred privilege to preach from this pulpit. And through all these long years, I have had one theme, and that theme has been Christ. No other theme in all the world would challenge the attendance and the attention of men and women and young people for long, long years, except this theme: Christ. [1]

Listen to audio of this passage

His major recurring theme, regardless the superficial theme of a particular sermon, is always the importance and urgency of bringing souls to Christ. Truett’s preaching carries a sense of impending doom for the unsaved, as one would expect from a favorite uncle or trusted neighbor who has your best interests at heart but has been unable to win you to his cause just yet. It is easy to see a major force behind his constant urging: the ongoing war in Europe, which would come to be called World War II and into which Truett would watch his country plunge in early December, 1941.

As our contemporary culture has moved further and further into a “you believe what you believe, I’ll believe what I believe and we’ll both be equally right” mindset, Truett’s candor regarding the way to salvation can strike modern listeners as shockingly exclusionary, even cliquish.

Salvation is not by a church, no matter what church. Greatly important as is the church as an institution, salvation is not by a church. All the churches in Christendom put together could not, in a million years, give the new birth to some soul wrong with God. Salvation is not by a church, nor by an ordinance, nor by a so-called sacrament, nor by some ritual – however imposing and impressive it may be – nor by some ceremony, nor by a creed, nor by a confession. Salvation, spiritual salvation for humanity, is by a person, and that person is Christ. Mark how he calls to us: “No man cometh unto the Father but by Me. I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the door. By me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved. He that climbeth some of the way is a thief and a robber.” [2]

Listen to audio of this passage

Chances are you have heard the last half of this appeal (“I am the way, the truth and the life …”) but it is Truett’s dismissal of any other supposed road to salvation that may be hard for contemporary Christians to swallow.

The language Truett uses to describe life in the early 1940s may also surprise first-time users of the sermons. Americans today are hyper-aware of the words they use to describe people, concepts and events. For someone who has been raised to speak as neutrally and with as little opportunity to offend as possible, it may come as a shock to hear Dr. Truett refer to a boy with physical handicaps as “crippled.” Likewise, hearing him refer to someone as “dumb” or non-Christians as “heathens” may make contemporary listeners uncomfortable.

As with all of the materials in our collections, we urge our users to place these materials in their proper historical context. Truett was a man born just two years after the end of the American Civil War, educated and raised during the “Gilded Age” and matured during the rapid societal changes of the early 1900s. His language reflects his roots, his upbringing and his culture in the same way that today’s Americans are molded by the complex milieu of our societal surroundings. Users should be mindful that Truett’s language and style of delivery – including charming ways of pronouncing words like “parliament” (“pah-lee-ahh-ment”) and “Joshua” (“jaw-shoo-way”) – are reflective of the time and place when they were delivered.

Other notable features of Truett’s style include a fondness for alliteration, as evidenced in this passage from his sermon of June 22, 1941:

And what wonders can be done, sometimes with just one sentence. Many a life has been checked, challenged, changed by one sentence. You may have spoken it – you probably have.

Listen to audio of this passage

Also making an appearance in this sentence is another of Truett’s rhetorical devices, namely, the use of three descriptors or examples to drive home a point. Truett seems to value the well-established efficacy of the concept of the “magic in threes” principle. Human brains are wired to respond more positively and effectively to a series of things that is odd in number, and three seems to be the most effective of all. An example of this, from the same sermon:

Here’s a talent we can use day or night, anywhere in the world we go, at any time: the talent of prayer. [3]

Listen to audio of this passage

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This is just a cursory look at the style and substance of Truett’s sermons, of course, and we welcome your in-depth examinations, comments and cross-postings as you get deeper into the collection. If you find a favorite passage or an insight you think is too good not to share, we’d love to see your tweets, Facebook posts or blog links. Send us a message at digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu or like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/baylordigitalcollections to continue the conversation!

 

Works Cited

[1] From the sermon “Philip at Samaria.” Delivered March 16, 1941. http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-gwt/id/199

[2] From the sermon “What Think Ye of God?” Delivered April 8, 1941.
http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-gwt/id/221

[3] From the sermon “The Gifts of God.” Delivered June 22, 1941.
http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/fa-gwt/id/289

Access to the Sound Files

The question we receive the most from people interested in this project is related to information on how they can listen to or obtain copies of these recordings. Unfortunately, the material we are collecting was produced between 1940 and 1970, and all of this material is most likely protected by copyright.

We have made some attempts to identify the copyright holders, but there are several issues that impede this process:

  • Music produced prior to 1970 was copyrighted at the state level, not the national level, and the copyright laws (and expiration of copyright) varied from state to state.
  • Many of these recordings were produced by small, little-known producers. At some point in time, these producers went out of business and disappeared or were bought by larger recording labels.
  • Some recordings were produced live at radio stations, some were produced at local churches or entities that may or may not still exist today.

Because of these copyright issues, we have determined that in an open environment we can provide detailed information that describes the recordings and 30-second sound bites of the music (using streaming technology). However, the full sound recordings will only be made available to researchers who are physically present at Baylor University.

The Black Gospel Music Restoration Project is purely a non-profit, preservation, and scholarly-oriented project. We want to preserve this music for the long term while adhering to and respecting the copyright of the individuals who produced this music. –brp