Regina Carter's Jazz Genealogy "The beauty was in the rawness," says the violinist, who based her latest album around field recordings from the American South.

Regina Carter's Jazz Genealogy

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


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.


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 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."


VERA WARD HALL: (Singing) Go to sleep, babe. Go to sleep, babe. 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, babe, 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.


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."


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.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) And I can't be...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Satisfied.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Satisfied, Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Satisfied.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Satisfied.

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


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.


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."


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.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: 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.


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.


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.

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