Culture
6:50 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

Regina Carter's Jazz Genealogy

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 7:42 pm

Jazz violinist Regina Carter grew up in Detroit, but as a child she spent summers in Alabama, where her paternal grandmother lived. Her grandfather died before she was born, and recently she began researching his side of the family. One revelation that sparked her interest: Her dad's dad had been a coal miner.

"I thought it would be interesting to record some of the music that would have been popular or happening during his lifetime, growing up in Alabama and the different places he lived and worked," Carter says. "So I went to the Library of Congress, to the Lomax collection, and also John Work III. Just some amazing music that I found."

Carter immersed herself in the field recordings of Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III, looking for music that might have infused the lives of her father's family. What she heard became the basis of her latest album, Southern Comfort. It's a sequel of sorts to 2010's Reverse Thread, an exploration of her African ancestry.

"I really wanted, with all of these pieces, to keep the rawness that I heard, and the beauty — because the beauty was in the rawness," she says. "And not to over-decorate them, if you will; to let that beauty come through."

Regina Carter discussed the making of Southern Comfort with NPR's Melissa Block. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation — as well as the music.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Jazz violinist Regina Carter says she has a deep yearning to understand her roots. And now, she's turning to music of the American South to tell that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: On her new album, "Southern Comfort," Regina Carter tackles Hank Williams, along with traditional folk songs such as "Shoo-Rye" and "Miner's Child," songs she imagines her Southern relatives would've known years ago. Regina Carter grew up in Detroit. As a child, she spent summers in Alabama with her paternal grandmother. Her grandfather had died before she was born. Recently, she started researching his side of the family and that's how she found inspiration for her new album.

REGINA CARTER: As I was on ancestry.com and finding out information about my grandfather, I found out he was a coal miner. I thought it would be interesting to record some of the music that would've been popular or happening during his lifetime growing up in Alabama and the different places he lived and worked. So I went to the Library of Congress, to the Lomax collection, and also John Work III. Just some amazing music that I found and really inspired me.

BLOCK: Is there a song on the album that when you think about a song, you know, sitting in the Library of Congress, listening to those field recordings, is there one song that you think of when you remember a light bulb going off and thinking, absolutely, I have to record this?

CARTER: "Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNBREAD CRUMBLED IN GRAVY")

VERA WARD HALL: (Singing) Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep you little baby. When you wake up, I'll make you up a cake, buy you little pretty little horsy. Go to sleep, go to sleep.

CARTER: I heard Vera Ward Hall. Just the quality of her voice when she sang it - and I don't imagine someone sitting in front of her with a microphone. I imagine her, you know, holding a child and really singing. You just - you really feel the emotion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNBREAD CRUMBLED IN GRAVY")

HALL: (Singing) When you wake up, I'll make you up a cake, cornbread crumbled in gravy.

BLOCK: Let's listen to some of your version of that song, "Cornbread Crumbled in Gravy."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: What was the sound you were going for with your version of this song, Regina?

CARTER: I really wanted, with all of these pieces, to keep the rawness that I heard and the beauty because the beauty was in the rawness, and not to over-decorate them, if you will, to let that beauty come through. And sometimes that's more difficult than it would seem.

BLOCK: What was the original field recording you heard for the song "See See Rider"?

CARTER: That is a children's game, a hand game, like a little Mary Mack or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And I can't be...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Satisfied.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Satisfied, Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Satisfied.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Satisfied.

CARTER: The field recording is from an all-girls school and it's completely rhythmically different than the arrangement we're playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SEE SEE RIDER")

BLOCK: So, Regina, when you're playing this tune, are you hearing those girls in your mind?

CARTER: I hear them in the beginning, and then I have to almost just let it go and think of the game itself and play because if I think of the way they phrase it rhythmically the whole time I'm playing it, physically, I'll feel a pull within myself. So I think of the game out front and I see myself playing it, and then I start to play this arrangement.

(SOUNDBITE OF "SEE SEE RIDER")

BLOCK: I'm talking with Regina Carter about her album "Southern Comfort." You know, the song on your album that just makes me stop whatever I'm doing and it's just achingly beautiful and so sad is "I'm Going Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOING HOME")

CARTER: Isn't that beautiful? Oh, my goodness.

BLOCK: It's incredible.

CARTER: And when you hear the field recording of this gentleman singing this piece, it's - I don't know, it just - it's amazingly beautiful and just - it will make you cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'm going home on the morning train. I'm going home on the morning train.

CARTER: When I hear music like that and it has that effect on me, then I have to - that it - I feel like, OK. I have to - I want - I really want to record this. I want to share this piece with people. Just so amazing. And then the whole story of being forgiven for your sins, making right with whoever you believe in because you're going to make your transition home. So - and being ready to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GOING HOME")

BLOCK: You know, you said earlier that this project for you was a personal journey. And I wonder if it led you, in the end, to a different understanding of who you are both as a woman and as a musician.

CARTER: What I found is it's given me - I have a lot to be proud of when I look back at my family and just seeing how even my paternal grandmother, how hard she worked and she raised 14 children. And, you know, they all migrated up to Detroit. My father being the eldest, he was the first one up, and they all were successful and raised families that are successful.

So just to see how hard they had to work and a lot of times that they didn't have, they made it work. And they were happy and they were hard workers. And so, when I feel like I want to give up on something, I have this history that I can look at. And I get strength from seeing my family and seeing these beautiful, strong people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: I've been talking with violinist Regina Carter. Her new album is titled "Southern Comfort." Miss Carter, thank you so much.

CARTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.