SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Regina Carter grew up in Detroit and now lives in New Jersey but her roots, at least in part, run through the South. The acclaimed violinist’s grandfather was an Alabama coal miner who died before she was born. And while Carter never had the chance to meet him, she did know the type of music he probably listened to in the early 20th century, significant for a musician.
So when it came time to start a new album, the MacArthur Fellowship recipient who made a name for herself as a jazz violinist decided to arrange and perform a collection of Southern folk songs from her grandfather’s era. Of course, this was easier said than done; Carter spent the next two years reading books on the period, speaking with distant relatives and, above all, delving deep into the archives of the Library of Congress and respected folklorists so she could listen to their field recordings of songs her grandfather likely heard.
In doing so, Carter learned about a South rife with racial discrimination and struggle in general, such as the coal miners’ fight to unionize. She also learned of a blended Appalachian culture influenced by the Irish, Scottish, Native American and African slave descendants who populated the region. She discovered all of this and more through the music of the time, and she is grateful for the experience.
“It was pretty astounding,” Carter told the News-Record in a Feb. 19 phone interview. “That time period is a rich part of our history, so it was pretty amazing. I found a lot of beautiful music as well.”
Carter culled her initial list of 50 favorite Southern folk songs down to the 11 that appear on the finished 2014 album “Southern Comfort,” giving her own spin on each one. Residents can hear the results of her efforts for themselves when she performs the record, along with some of her other work, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center on March 5.
Though every piece falls under the banner of traditional Southern folk, the music sounds far from uniform. From the upbeat, jazzy interpretation of “Trampin’” to the mournful tone of “I’m Coming Home,” Carter’s style certainly runs the gamut on “Southern Comfort.”
Yet tying the songs together, Carter said, is the fact that she made sure to preserve the austerity integral to their original recordings. As a result, her method of arranging the music proved to be quite different from the more intricate jazz with which she is often identified.
“I wanted to try and really highlight the rawness and the beauty that was there, to try and really keep the simplicity of the melodies,” Carter recalled. “So it’s very different stylewise. I just gave it its space and let those melodies be what they were.”
“Southern Comfort” was not the first time Carter looked into her own history for musical inspiration. Her 2006 album “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey” explored her late mother’s favorite early jazz standards while her 2010 offering “Reverse Thread” reimagined the traditional music of West Africa, where many of her ancestors originated. She explained that the reason for these trips through her family’s past stems from her own fascination with where she comes from, an interest that first sparked within her as a child reading about other cultures in National Geographic magazine. As an adult the spark grew to a flame, compelling her to compile a family tree tracing her lineage.
The more she learned about her family, the more she learned about herself, Carter said. And the more she learned about herself, the more she wanted to translate her relatives’ stories into her other passion — music. As a result, while all of her songs hold significant meaning for her, she said the music of her family’s past will always be special.
“It’s more personal,” Carter said. “It makes me feel like I have a direct connection. In some way, I feel like it belongs to me, or it’s of me.”
Carter will be turning to the past once again for her next album, though it will not be her own this time. She said her next record will be a collection of songs originally performed by Ella Fitzgerald — one of her favorite singers — and is due out in late 2016 or early 2017. But, she said, she is not done exploring her own history, promising that she will likely embark on another family-related project after that.
Meanwhile, Carter is content to continue sharing “Southern Comfort” with live audiences across the country, telling the News-Record that she hopes her music will inspire audience members to explore their own family’s story. It certainly has made her feel closer to her grandfather, she said, and she believes her grandfather is proud.
“After the whole project was finished, I had some old boxes here in our home that I hadn’t unpacked from when my mother passed away years ago in 2005,” Carter said. “So I thought ‘There’s three boxes, you have to get rid of these boxes now.’ And in one of the first boxes I opened up there was a (photo album) someone had made with all my grandparents’ pictures and all their 14 children. So for the very first time I saw a picture of my grandfather.
“I felt like it was a gift,” she said. “It was kind of a green light, like ‘You’re on the right path.’”
To order tickets, call 973-313-2787 or visit www.sopacnow.org/regina-carter.