Keep in mind now: The only reason we're looking for the Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Md. is so they might know just how great we think their arrangement and performance of "Old Ship of Zion" was. Let's be clear: We would not bother if the Mighty Wonders were just an average obscure acapella gospel group from the 1960s. It's the recording of that song — or, rather, the Wonders' version of it ("Nothing But Love in God's Water") — that gives me goosebumps and sends me on a quest.
I'm hoping to find the Mighty Wonders to give them thanks, and I am not alone.
"You'd better come over here, I've got no words for this."
That's what Robert Darden, founder of the Baylor University Black Gospel Restoration Project, heard on the phone one day a few years ago. It was Tony Tadey calling. Tadey, an audio specialist, was in the process of digitizing the Mighty Wonders' 45-rpm record. Neither he nor Darden had heard of the group. The recording was one of thousands that had come to the project since its launch in 2008.
"We sat there and listened to it on the best speakers in America, and we were both in tears at the end of it," Darden says.
It's just over two minutes long, but the Mighty Wonders' "Old Ship of Zion" speaks to the ages: the voices of black men, most likely descendants of slaves — and possibly slaves from Southern Maryland tobacco farms — blended beautifully to express faith in a loving God and the promise of life in the hereafter.
Darden, one of the nation's leading authorities on gospel music, was so inspired by the Wonders' version that he took their lyrics for the title of his latest book, "Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement."
That phrase — "Nothing but love in God's water" — does not appear in any version of "Old Ship of Zion" that I have seen. The hymn was written in the late 19th century, updated for the gospel era in the 20th. There have been all kinds of arrangements of it. (Sweet Honey in the Rock take us right to the banks of the River Jordan with their echoey, ghostly version.) The words, "Ain't no danger in the water" have been sung. But the Mighty Wonders appear to have come up with something original.
They did so in the late 1960s or early 1970s, in a recording studio in Arlington, Va. Darden believes the men, either a quartet or quintet, paid for the recording and a limited printing of their 45. They might have sold a few, or just given them away to family and friends. There are only two known copies of it, Darden says. The one Tadey digitized at Baylor came from Bob Marovich, founder and editor of the Journal of Gospel Music. Marovich got his copy 15 years ago from an East Coast collector who sent him a box of records he no longer wanted.
Marovich was also stunned by what he heard. That's why he and Darden would like to find the Mighty Wonders.
"These were quality singers, with excellent vocal diction and control," Marovich says. "But what's interesting is, when the Mighty Wonders made that recording, acapella gospel music had been on the outs for some time. It was almost anachronistic."
Gospel groups had moved to electronic accompaniment by then. The absence of it in the Mighty Wonders' "Old Ship" makes it timeless, with just a few Sam Cooke touches from the lead singer. "It's as if they were hankering for the old days," Marovich says. "Or perhaps they had been together for a long time, and that's the way they always sang. We don't know."
There's a lot we don't know about the Mighty Wonders. Darden and Marovich have only been able to scrape together a few facts:
At least one of them, possibly lead singer John Stewart Jr., was from Aquasco, along the Patuxent River in southeastern Prince George's County. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the area was known for tobacco plantations with slaves. Just under 1,000 people live there today.
The Mighty Wonders are still a mystery.
Marovich and Darden would like to find a connection to them — to give credit where it's due, to let the Mighty Wonders know just how powerful and beautiful their rendition of the "Old Ship" was.
This quest reminds me of the Coen Brothers' film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou," and the Soggy Bottom Boys. Recall that the trio had no clue as to what a sensation their recording of "Man of Constant Sorrow" had become while they were on an odyssey through the Mississippi Delta. To paraphrase the music agent who was looking for them: Hell's bells, we have to find those fellas.
Mighty Wonders, or next of kin, please get in touch.
(Go to baltimoresun.com to hear the song, provided by the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.)
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.