In her Instagram videos, where she reaches her audience during the coronavirus closures, Vienna Carroll presents a scholarly but artistic presence. She wears dangling earrings and long necklaces, and her hair is in dark dreads crowned at the top with a refined gray. She speaks in a calm, elliptical voice, drawing in the listener in a grandmotherly way. With a sparkle in the eyes, she flashes a smile when she utters the words “freedom stories,” as she spins tales about how “We freed ourselves” and breaks out into melodic phrases drawn from the slave spirituals.
Before the mid-aughts, Vienna Caroll honed her craft singing in St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, “a little dive” on Sugar Hill in Harlem, N.Y., which burned down in 2018. For Carroll, the concept of Black self-liberation is rooted in spiritual enlivenment. She wants to fight the spiritual “impoverishment” caused by a lack of awareness of Black contributions to American history. Cramming Black history into a single month, the shortest in the calendar year no less, reflects a deep aversion to Black contributions, she believes.
Inclusion is not political correctness, she said on a phone call earlier this month. It’s a full accounting of American history, the kind denied to children of her generation.
According to her, American culture failed to carry the true Black narratives, instead, it imposed upon Blacks a “victim narrative,” devoid of Black agency.
“When I present how much agency we had, sometimes I’m really questioned about [the truth of] that. People are really surprised,” she reflected.
“It hurts me when the children say, ‘why didn’t we stand up for ourselves?’ and that’s the wrong question.”
The right question, she averred, is why it has been so deeply and actively suppressed that “we stood up for ourselves.”
“We were active in our own freedom story,” she said. It is a sentiment she would repeat forcefully during the call.
This oral nature, of course, makes preserving the tradition hard. With few written accounts, the slave narratives can fall into the gaps of our cultural memory. For Carroll, the spirituals are essential for preventing this. Carroll finds a treasure trove of “hero stories” in these songs, as well as an intimate look at the circumstances of Black lives and stories during often dark periods. The combination of the laws against reading and writing for slaves, and the pre-existence of the African oral traditions, fused to create the perfect vehicle for Black culture and struggle. For her, they preserve the history of how Blacks were able to push through to freedom and, as such, deserve to be preserved themselves in their “authentic,” non-Europeanized sound.
“If you go to church,” Carroll laughed as she says this,” it’s right there.”
“It’s a very alive tradition, that sound.”
Recalling her early church experiences, the fervor with which people spoke, how they sang the music, gave her a model for the “endlessly improvisational” music which is, nonetheless, true to the core of the tradition. Her family background is Pentecostal, but she grew up in various denominations including baptist and methodist churches.
She left the faith for a while. She went to Yale University where she majored in African American studies and took coursework in Black music (graduated in 1976). It was there, in 1973-4, that she was exposed to the book by the poet James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, “The Books of the American Negro Spirituals.” Her ear was drawn to an entry titled, “Singing With a Sword in My Hand.” It jarred her sense of history. She wondered: what kind of slaves could sing a song like that? It was a question that would go unanswered for decades.
In 2005, however, Carroll fell sick. She went home to York County, Pa., to recuperate. While there, she visited the York Historical Society for the first time and found stories of Blacks in the Underground Railroad. It was an epiphany.
Carroll wrote a play with her wife, a New York-based writer. It was forty minutes long, “sprinkled liberally with the spirituals,” which she called “Singing With a Sword in My Hand.” Out of about 200 plays, it won audience favorite at the New York Fringe Festival, she said.
She later wrote another play, “Shallow Ground,” extolling the role of Black sailors in the Underground Railroad. It used David Walker, the author of a fiery 1829 anti-colonization tract, “Walker’s Appeal,” as a way of investigating the phenomena around Nat Turner, the most famous slave revolt in American history.
When Carroll presented this at an artist’s showcase at the Langston Hughes House in New York, she received what she described, glowingly, as “the most wonderful talk-back.” Far from the surprise she sometimes gets, this represented another response to this music: more stories.
“It’s a really great opportunity to not only educate people but to receive education,” she said.
Through her Instagram series “We Freed Ourselves,” Carroll shares the stories of Black history. She relays the lives of people like Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave who was freed as a child and who would later become a spy, re-entering slavery using the name Ellen Bond as part of an elaborate spy network run by Union sympathizers during the Civil War. Bond, Carroll recounted, leaked secrets from the house of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. When she came under suspicion in 1865, she tried, unsuccessfully, to burn down the house before going on the lam.
Carroll explained that casting light on this history is why she will continue to front a string band— guitar, bass, and washboard— as well as continue to offer songs stripped-down and acapella.
“I’m not a classical preservationist, in [saying] that it can only be sung like this,” she said. “But I want to get to the essence of the old and wrap it in the new, so we can see how it’s a continuum all the way through.”
This, she said, is her calling.
“When I figured out this was the music I really loved and wanted to sing, I felt that I had finally come upon my purpose.”