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Vienna Carroll sings of self-determination, strength in Bayou Theater

When Vienna Carroll was a child, she connected deeply to the music of her great-grandmother's Pentecostal church. When she was in college, she discovered a way to combine her love of that music with her passion for African American history and literature, and she found her calling as a performer. She'll be sharing her particular brand of gospel, history and storytelling on the Bayou Theater stage Friday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

"When I went to school, we studied opera and show tunes in music, but I didn't have a heart for that," Carroll said. "Then, when I went to college at Yale University, I studied the early African American ethno-musicology, and majored in African American Studies. That's when I got a book of selected early African American spirituals, performed formally and arranged."

She said she'd always kept in mind how those songs were used by the early Blacks who sang them. "I thought about how these songs were used in their homes and in the fields. I heard about how they were used as 'escape' songs, and wondered how they got to freedom — what was the soundscape of that? I didn't have an answer."

After visiting the Old York Historical Society in her hometown of York, Pennsylvania, she discovered information that impacted they way she performed her music.

"I found history about York as a hotbed of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity," she said. "We'd grown up hearing that Quakers were the only ones running the Underground Railroad, but learning all this turned my thinking on its head."

She discovered the strength and the self-determination of the former slaves who had traveled through York, and realized that trait was not explored or amplified enough in the African American freedom story.

"It brought back to me that the music that had moved me so much in church and studied at Yale told our freedom stories," she said. "Those songs held our freedom at times when we couldn't write things down. They were more than just spirituals or work songs for emotional uplifting — I learned I could marry these songs to the missing history and talk about different elements of American history, especially the self-determination of Black people in their own freedom story."

That realization, she said, gave her the center for her music. "I felt that I had a mission," she said.

"My performance is about combining music with history and be able to celebrate," she explained. "And, I love to groove, and for folks to sing along so you'll certainly have a lot of fun at my concert."

She added that she believes singing opens people up in a certain way. "Singing has the power to help people receive and uplift," she said. "The message I'm bringing is that in our songs, we can see how we were able to preserve ourselves and our history, our desire for freedom, and how we freed ourselves."

Together, Carroll and her three bandmates, a guitarist, a bass guitarist and a washboard player, hope to recreate the old sound with a new sensibility. "It's a celebratory evening, and I want to lift everyone up," she said.

In celebration of Black History Month at UH-Clear Lake, visitors are invited to the Art Gallery for an exhibition of Houston artist Floyd Newsum's paintings and sculptures at 5 p.m., then to proceed to the Bayou Theater for an evening with Vienna Carroll. For more information and to purchase tickets to her performance, visit the Bayou Theater.