Jazz violinist Regina Carter has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “family album” with her latest recording, Southern Comfort. Her new album is Regina’s own take on songs her grandfather would have listened to.
But before she got to know the music, she had to get to know her paternal grandfather, Dan J. Carter.
Regina Carter was born and raised in Detroit, where her father and his 13 siblings had migrated after growing up in Alabama. She spent warm, fun summers back in Alabama with her grandmother Katie Pearl Walker Carter, but she never knew her grandfather, who had passed away almost a decade before she was born.
Two events put the chance to get acquainted right in her hands.
The first came after her mother passed away in 2005. Regina came across a box of mementoes that included a picture of her paternal grandfather.
She got a subscription, took a DNA test, and soon found she had the bug. Her DNA test left both Carter and her brothers “astonished and fascinated,” especially with a trace of Scandinavian DNA that still has them stumped. She built an online tree, connected with a “long lost relative” she discovered on Ancestry.com, and had fun working together on their family tree. She finally had to limit herself to researching family on Sundays only. “I was spending hours on it,” she admits.
During her online research, she learned that her grandfather Dan J. had been a coal miner. Now, with a picture and an occupation, she was on her way to a person. And somewhere along the way, she started to ask natural questions for a musician: What were the songs he might have known? The music he might have listened to?
Those questions led Carter to the American music archives at the Library of Congress. Her grandfather had lived during an era of music documented by the likes of John and Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III, who had traipsed throughout the South in the 1930s and ’40s collecting and recording folk music. They met singers and performers in prisons, churches, front porches; recorded their voices and instruments; and created a unique archive of American culture and song.
“I listened to coal miner tunes, trying to have a connection to him,” Carter says. “Prison songs, children’s songs. There was just so much material there.” After listening to hours of recordings and researching other popular music of her grandfather’s day, Carter decided to unite her present with her grandfather’s by recording her own versions of a handful of those songs on a project that turned into Southern Comfort, released by Sony Music Masterworks in March. (Watch Regina talk about the making of Southern Comfort.)
Carter has always seen her musical talent as a gift passed down to her from her grandmother. Now she’s been able to forge a musical connection with her grandfather as well. As a child, she had always been fascinated by people who knew their roots and could trace their family back for generations. She longed for that sense of belonging, a connection beyond the culture of Detroit. She’s found that in a combination of music and family: from slave ancestors to musicians to coal miners to a grandmother who graduated from college in 1915. They’ve left her proud, and they’ve left her inspired.
“I believe music comes through me, not from me,” Carter says. “I don’t own it.”
And now this music has come from the past—and brought a little bit of her grandfather with it.
Buy your own copy of Southern Comfort.