With new governor, Maryland gets new, cheesy greeting

“We're Open For Business” quietly becomes Maryland's new greeting

"We're Open For Business" is now Maryland's official state greeting. That cheesy expression appears on 20 yellow-and-white welcome signs on roads leading into the state. The words were added a couple of weeks ago, at the same time State Highway Administration crews attached Gov. Larry Hogan's name to the signs.

The governor apparently gets to decide, without asking the rest of us, what motorists read in the way of a greeting as they drive into our state. While "Enjoy Your Visit" might have been kind of bland, "We're Open For Business" is … what's another word for "cheesy"?

The greeting is supposed to make it clear that Maryland will … what? Give free pedicures to any executive who locates a business here? Further reduce industrial regulation? Hand out massive tax breaks?

Is that what we're all about?

And if we're open for business now, does that mean we were closed before?

In November, Forbes ranked Maryland 20th on its list of "best states for business and careers." That's not Top 10, but it's not the backwater Hogan depicted as he ran for governor, either.

Even if the state was in rougher shape, would we want "We're Open For Business" as the official greeting? I'd like to see a survey on that question. (Hello, Goucher Poll!)

Not even West Virginia wanted "Open For Business" as its official greeting.

Eight years ago, when Democrat Joe Manchin was governor, he had that expression added to 107 welcome signs, and it was widely disliked. According to an Associated Press report at the time, even Republicans thought "Open For Business" was tacky. A student at West Virginia University collected about 15,000 signatures on a petition to change it.

Manchin heard the gripes and called for a statewide survey, online and by telephone, to determine what slogan West Virginians wanted. More than 100,000 people responded. After that, the state dropped "Open For Business" and returned to an old slogan: "Wild And Wonderful."

I don't know if we should go back to "Maryland, America in Miniature," but it would certainly beat the cheese we have now.

Mighty Wonders found

We found the Mighty Wonders, the gospel singers whose interpretation and recording of an old spiritual so impressed music curators at Baylor University they wanted to know more about the Maryland group.

Here's what we learned since last Sunday's column on the hunt for the Mighty Wonders:

All nine of them were from Aquasco, in southeastern Prince George's County, and all had been raised in the United Methodist Church. They sang up to three times each Sunday in churches throughout the region. In the early days, they almost always sang a cappella.

They recorded their impressive version of "Old Ship of Zion" in the early 1970s to have 45-rpm copies of the song for sale when they performed. According to Tom Contee, one of the original Wonders, the group raised enough money to purchase matching suits: "Gray sharkskin with pink shirts and, I think, gray ties."

Contee said the group stopped singing about 10 years ago but had a reunion performance when Christ United Methodist Church, the Wonders' spiritual home in Aquasco, staged a celebration for all members who were 90 or older. That was about five years ago. After that, the Mighty Wonders started getting requests to sing again.

Six of the original members are still active, Contee said; two have died, and one dropped out of the group a long time ago. In addition to Contee, the surviving Mighty Wonders are John Stewart, Ernest Johnson Jr., Lowell Washington, Alfred Johnson and Sidney Contee.

Curators at the Baylor University Black Gospel Music Restoration Project have been in touch with Tom Contee, and there's chatter about having the Mighty Wonders perform at musical festivals, including one here in Maryland. We'll keep you posted.

'A living tradition'

On the way to learning about the Mighty Wonders, we gained some perspective on the spiritual singing of the region from Clifford Murphy, the ethnomusicologist who directs Maryland Traditions, the state folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council.

"There's a musical tradition still active in the United Methodist Church in Maryland and Delaware that predates the style of gospel the Mighty Wonders do," Murphy said. "It's called the 'singing and praying bands' tradition. This would be the kind of sacred music that Harriet Tubman grew up singing. All a cappella."

The music was heard in the secret camp meetings of slaves in the Chesapeake region, Murphy's research found, and it came from the merger of Christian hymns with West African sacred music. It was later practiced in Methodist churches; each had a uniformed "band" that traveled a circuit, sang at camp meetings and helped raise funds.

Murphy said there are about 100 people still making this music, some of them from the same area of Southern Maryland the Mighty Wonders called home.

"It's a living tradition that's lived through a lot," he said. "And you can only find it in Maryland and Delaware."

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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