Vienna Carroll’s New Album Reveals the Defiant, Transgressive Roots of Gospel and Blues Classics

Vienna Carroll could be called a New York counterpart to Rhiannon Giddens. Both artists share a deep, historically-informed, often witheringly insightful knowledge of the roots of African-American music, and can be riveting performers. Carroll’s new album, Harlem Field Recordings – streaming at youtube – includes both politically-charged reinventions of classic blues and gospel themes as well as more traditional numbers and originals which sound like 19th century standards. It’s classic music as you’ve probably never heard it before. Carroll also has a show tomorrow night, March 6 at 5:30 PM at a familiar haunt, the American Folk Art Museum; admission is free.

She opens the record’s first track, Strawberries and Glory with the shout of an oldtime urban fruit vendor. This is a one-chord gospel jam sung rousingly over a backdrop of Michael O’Brien’s fat bass chords, Keith Johnston’s stingingly resonant dobro and Newman Taylor Baker’s subtly swinging washboard percussion. Midway through the song, Carroll switches to a hilarious subway vendor scenario, bringing this story into the present day: over the years, good entrepreneurs may change their pitches, but ultimately, business savvy hasn’t changed much. Happily, Carroll’s story doesn’t include what could have happened to this enterprising businesswoman, when she moved to another car on the train…and got busted by an undercover cop, simply for trying to make an honest living.

The group follow with a bouncy, country blues-tinged version of the old spiritual You Better Mind. Carroll’s slowly simmering 6/8 take of Come Into My Kitchen draws a straight line back to the Howlin’ Wolf classic Sitting on Top of the World, with a sparkly guitar solo at the center. She half-sings, half-speaks her way through the grim narrative of No Mo Freedom, the vengeful promise of a wrongfully convicted prisoner at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm. She uses the same technique a little later on in her spare bass-and-vocal arrangement of Grinnin’ in Your Face.

Prison Blues, with the full band adding a funky sway behind her, is just as harrowing – and just as vindictive, in keeping with a familiar theme in Carroll’s work, four hundred years of defiance and subversion against racism and repression. Her interpretation of Let’s Go Down to the River is several levels more fervent than the wispy version you may have heard on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.

With the band blending in a thicket of psychedelically-influenced guitar (and a wry Coltrane quote), Carroll’s approach to I Just Wanna Make Love to You reinforces its origins as a transgressive slave anthem. Likewise, Carroll’s stark remake of All the Pretty Little Horses, spiced with Melanie Dyer’s viola reveals a level of crushing sarcasm in what’s usually interpreted as an innocuous lullaby. The black nursemaid sees a bright future for the slaveowner’s kid in her arms; meanwhile, her own baby is crying from hunger in the slave quarters.

Carroll’s rousing Make the Devil Leave Me Alone leaves no doubt that this is no mere hymn; it’s an escaped slave’s anthem. She winds up the album triumphantly with Singing Wid a Sword in My Hand, a thinly veiled tale that takes that escape to its logical conclusion. It’s a party for our right to fight, something we really need to take seriously at a point where the DNC is shooting itself in the foot, handing over the 2020 election to the Trumpies just as they did in 2016.