Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Folk Unlocked Virtual Conference: Part 7 of 8 – Vienna Carroll
This article is the seventh of an eight-part series covering Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Folk Unlocked Virtual Conference, dedicated to Vienna Carroll and her festival performance.
Vienna Carroll is a singer-songwriter, historian, playwright, actor, and herbalist from York, Pennsylvania. On the evening of Wednesday, February 24th (CST), Carroll streamed an hour-long, eleven-song set that had been pre-recorded specifically for the Folk Unlocked festival a few days prior at her home in Harlem.
Carroll’s songs were performed with a single instrument: her voice. Between songs, she verbally provided historical and cultural context, resulting in a song-analysis-song-analysis sequence for her performance that gave each story due time to sink in. Carroll’s delivery was earthy, brisk, and stirring. She voiced each song with great care, as one might handle a fragile, important relic—especially in her establishment of the beat sans a rhythm section—enhancing the already-apparent deep significance of the music.
Vienna Carroll dedicated an afternoon to fielding some of my questions over the phone. Continue reading to see what she had to say!
Note: the transcript of this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image courtesy of Facebook.com/viennacarroll
Ben: I understand that you learned music through exposure to your grandmother’s church in Alabama. Would you mind sharing a bit about that?
Vienna Carroll: My grandmother led services and songs, and people would join in as they felt moved to do so. The church allowed a lot of time for that, so that gave me a lot of exposure to that particular music.
Ben: Is there a vocal coach whom you can credit with helping you develop the sound you harness in your singing?
Vienna Carroll: Nanette Natal, my vocal coach, trained me to breathe using my diaphragm, and to manage my stage fright.
Ben: You’re also a Yale-educated historian, with a particular interest in sharing your knowledge of history. Which of those disciplines were you drawn to first: education, or performance? And how would you define your current identity?
Vienna Carroll: I was drawn to performance first, but didn’t have the heart for it. I got a lot of practice singing jazz at St. Nick’s pub in New York City, but I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling my sense of purpose until I started marrying stories of Black history with music, and singing that music. I was truly passionate about that, because Black slaves used songs to get through slavery, so the sense of purpose I felt came from finding the stories of how we freed ourselves from slavery.
In terms of my identity, for me, one can’t happen without the other. I envision a particular kind of music that’s not for everyone, but that I want to share with people, so I need to put it in context.
Ben: No one can doubt the importance of sharing African American history. Writing, performing, and recording Black Roots music is far from the only way in which you share African American history though, as you are also a playwright and actor, among other things. What specific vision for the future do you have, which you hope to achieve through the educating you’re doing?
Vienna Carroll: I think for everyone, American history is told in a particular way that leaves out a lot of stuff, including the agency of Black people in their own freedom story. We grow up thinking that the Quakers, abolitionists, or a few heroes freed us, and that we were mostly victims. I think it’s really important for all of us, as Americans, to understand that that’s not true. There’s been so much omission and deliberate error in how the past is portrayed. I am on a mission to correct that. I think that it will serve everyone to understand the true story, and to include what I’m talking about in the story of American history. I’m particularly interested in speaking to Black people, young and old, to educate them to understand that the question is “Why has our resistance been so suppressed?”, not “Why didn’t we resist?”. We freed ourselves from slavery. The Quakers and abolitionists did not do it for us. But that has been so actively suppressed. I’m against that, and that is what I’m trying to respond to. And no films about Frederick Douglas, or Douglas Smalls, have ever been made, and it took hundreds of years to make a film about Harriet Tubman. I’m going to keep speaking about that, because it needs to happen. We are heroes in our own freedom story.
Ben: In addition to your soundtrack album, Singin Wid A Sword, and your live album, Vienna Carroll Live, you’ve released a studio album titled Harlem Field Recordings. You’re currently working on your second studio album, This is Harlem Country. What did you learn from writing and recording your first studio album that is influencing your artistic decisions on this new one?
Vienna Carroll: I didn’t know anything about recording, overdubbing, and all that stuff, so I wasn’t as involved in those things. When you present your finished album, it has to sound a certain way if you want it to be considered for airplay. On this second album, I think we could do an even better job of doing that. You know, hindsight is 20/20, so there are some things I wish would’ve happened on the first album, but we laid it down really quick and I wasn’t as involved in the mixing and so forth as I will be on the album we’re working on now.
Ben: Many other artists and musicians can be heard on your various albums. Could you talk a little about who they are, generally speaking, and how you met them?
Vienna Carroll: The drummer, Newman Baker Taylor, was the only collaborator for my first album. He really understood the artistic vision and really joined me in that. He has been working with me for maybe 20 years. He has been a solid support, because he hasn’t tried to change or alter what I’m trying to do—he’s just trying to support me. Michael O’Brien payed bass. Very fabulous bass player. There’s Melanie Dyer. Also, Keith Johnson, who helps me shape my art, whom I met through acting. He shares my vision about education and edutainment and lifting us through art. Keith added Stanley Banks on the bass for the third album. Everyone came together through various different contacts. It’s amazing what a small world it really is.
Ben: Your artistic identity clearly establishes you as a proud representative of Harlem, and you currently live there. Could you please elaborate on your connection to and history with Harlem? Also, could you please let us know how, or where, elements of Harlem show up in your songs? For example, the opening track off your album Harlem Field Recordings, Strawberries and Glory, includes a spoken word section that has Harlem written all over it.
Vienna Carroll: I’ve been living in Sugar Hill in Harlem since 1984, in the same apartment. I’m from York, PA, which is mostly white people but some Black people. When I came to Harlem, I saw that the people here are so different. They’re so proud and have such a strong sense of identity and community. I was beyond thrilled when we moved here. I felt like all parts of Harlem would feed me—the old, the new, and the mixed.
On Strawberries and Glory, what those boys were saying, that is a work song, even though they’re speaking instead of singing. My music melds the old and the new and it keeps that Roots sound, which I feel is 100% like what Harlem does, melding the old and the new. It’s a continuum. The CD cover for Harlem Field Recordings shows this continuum, too, visually. [Note: the CD cover can be seen in the image accompanying this article, on the blown-up print held by Vienna Carroll] I love what Ken Daly did with it. It starts in the cotton field, because when we came here, we were farmers, and we were brought here to do the work of farmers. So, it starts there, with the spirituals, and the work songs, and the hollers. And it continues to the cabin with the woman with the guitar, and then to the residential buildings in Harlem. I think it’s important to preserve that history, although I’m not a preservationist in the way that I think the music has to sound like it sounded in 1824.
Ben: Lastly, is there anything else in particular that you’d like our readers to know about you?
Vienna Carroll: I think your questions were really thorough and I appreciate them, so thank you! I really enjoyed talking to you!
Next, I will cover the performance of American multi-genre singer-songwriter and pianist Linda Marks. Make sure to visit Big City Folks to check it out!