Artist Inspiration

My name is Vienna Carroll and I sing. Singing is my passion, I love singing, I sing all the time. I grew up with hours and hours of deeply passionate and often unaccompanied singing of the Spirituals and traditional gospel hymns in the marathon church services of the Black Ladies of my youth – my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my godmother, my mother. As a child and adolescent I sang along with television commercial jingles, as well as my favorite "inspirations" – Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Andy Williams and the Beatles. I sang militarily in my Salvation Army church choir and European and show tunes in my school choirs. I studied violin and piano. Music was all around but no songs moved me like that early church music. As a student at Yale University I began studying the Spirituals as a body of work. And I felt there that an important part of their story was still waiting to be told.

The Spirituals were a primary force in every aspect of life: work, relaxation, religion. Much has been written about their role during slavery as vehicles of spiritual escape and spiritual freedom. Of course the Spirituals figured prominently in physical escape and freedom as well. I have imagined how.

I wrote Singin Wid A Sword In Ma Han because I found their story. On an extended visit to my mother in York PA I went to the local historical society and found these – books – documenting the "Slave Grapevine" and York’s historical involvement as a hotbed of abolitionism and Underground Railroad activity, books that brought black people out of the shadows, where they have patiently waited. I believe the Slave Grapevine was the actual Underground Railroad. We freed ourselves.

Project Description and Impact

Singin Wid A Sword In Ma Han is a musical, docudrama in which a woman recounts her family's escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad. The spirituals are a prominent vehicle in this story of self-determination, pointing the way, providing both spiritual upliftment and warnings and instructions. They highlight heretofore unsung heroes of the Underground Railroad, the everyday Black man and woman, slave and free, dismissively known as the Slave Grapevine.

The Underground Railroad was not only the Quakers and a few Black stars like Harriet Tubman. We freed ourselves and we went to extraordinary lengths to do it. Far too much of our history recounts our defeat and victimization and betrayal. Recent research has brought to light our cooperation and triumph. One example of this is the preservation of 2 slave narratives in David Blight's A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom: Including Their Own Narratives Of Emancipation.

It is commonly accepted that the Spirituals were used to help us to freedom. Singin imagines their actual use in the quest for freedom which necessarily brings the African to the center of his own freedom story.

In Singin, we have a strong Black man, a loving Black family, an involved Black church and a caring and supportive community, Black and white. Neither are our villains homogeneous. In fact almost all of the characters, situations and locales in Singin are based on historical fact.

It is important to be aware and celebrate the strength and importance of the slave grapevine that was integral to freedom. A strong history ensures a proud, strong, stakes-holding community. Singin provides a hero story easily accessible to all ages and can act as a great catalyst for further discussion and research.

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Related sites

Vienna Carroll's personal website

Underground Railroad Festival


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