Memphis-born singer-songwriter Clare Burson, whose new concept CD on Rounder Records is called Silver and Ash, will appear Wednesday, October 13, at 8 p.m., at WorkPlay. Burson will appear on a bill with headliner Sarah Harmer, as well as The Ruby Suns, Local Natives, Ruby Sims and The Union Line.
Silver and Ash is an attempt by Burson, who is Jewish, to tell the story of her maternal grandmother, who fled Germany in 1938 with her brother, and her maternal great-grandparents, who were unable to secure the visas they needed to leave Europe as WWII drew near. Her great-grandparents did not survive the Holocaust.
Burson, who is 34 years old and now based in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, N.Y., had struggled to find the truth about her family in Germany ever since she learned about the Holocaust as an 8-year-old. Her curiosity was only fueled by her maternal grandmother’s deep reluctance to talk about this horrendous episode in the history of their family, in the history of Europe and in the history of the Jewish people.
Funded in part by a Six Points fellowship, Burson visited her childhood home in Memphis, where she interviewed her grandmothers, and traveled to Germany, Latvia, Ukraine and Lithuania.
In the 10 songs on Silver and Ash, produced by Grammy-nominee Tucker Martine, Burson uses subtle images—often drawn from her family research or her grandmother’s memories—to reveal the emotional truth of what her family suffered. The songs creep into your heart and mind after repeated listenings.
Burson helps to keep her great-grandparents alive by remembering them in song and by dealing with the workings and importance of memory itself. “Memory is such a powerful and important thing, especially in keeping people alive who are no longer here,” Burson told me in a recent telephone interview.
The following are excepts from that conversation, conducted while Burson talked to me on her cell phone and enjoyed a cool, sunny, breezy Sunday on Governor’s Island near Manhattan.
Birmingham Weekly: How did this experience of making Silver and Ash change you?
Burson: I felt through most of my life there was a disconnect in terms of my sense of continuity in life, a rupture with the past. I feel that I’ve been able to close that. I’ve been able to fill in the pieces and the holes. I feel more confident as a person in my life and where I’m going. I have a better understanding of the family dynamics that preceded me, and my relationship with my grandmother, and my mother, too, has deepened. It’s been a very fulfilling and empowering experience.
Apart from personal motivations, do you feel that these songs help bear witness for the victims of the Nazis? Are they some sort of reminder that the people who were killed were human beings with families, not just statistics?
Yeah, I didn’t set out to do that. This was very personal, and this was about finding those small moments that make up lives and history, and part of that absolutely is turning this gigantic, tragic moment in history into something relevant and real. It became clear to me in this history of the Holocaust. and the people who lived through it and did not survive it, that they are human beings, and they reacted to these situations like any human being would. In bringing my grandparents—and of course my grandmother is still alive—into the 21st century and exploring my grandmother’s childhood, I hope it can resonate with people regardless of their connection to this moment in history.
Do you still feel a sense of loss? Of anger? Are there feelings that never go away?
I think that I don’t feel angry anymore. I still feel a sense of loss, but I feel like I’ve done the grieving that I need to do, and I always will, but I also feel like I found a good sense of closure with all of this.
What does memory need to function? Does it need objects as talismans? How does memory work for you, especially in terms of these songs?
I feel like memory just needs transmission. I grew up in a family where one grandmother was an avid storyteller and the other one wasn’t. I felt on more solid ground in thinking about my place in history in the eyes of my paternal grandmother. She shared her memories. She kept her relatives and their memories alive through story, whereas I felt my maternal grandmother was letting those things recede into the background. Through storytelling and songwriting and singing, I tried to being those memories back and create some continuity between the past and the present and, hopefully, the future, too. But heirlooms are powerful talismans or relics that connect us in a physical way.
I noticed in a Q&A you did with Billboard that you found out what happened to your great-grandparents, but that you’ve held it back, because your maternal grandmother is conflicted about wanting to know.
I’m going to hold that back. Somebody told me last night, ‘But your grandmother knows they didn’t survive.’ But even for me, even before I had documents that pinned them down to a certain place or certain time, I thought maybe they could have gone east and maybe ended up in a gulag, or other scenarios that would be easier to live with. If and when my grandmother wants to know, she’ll ask me, or she’ll find out on her own.
What was it like to be Jewish and Southern?
Originally I thought this was the direction the album would take—the experience of a Jewish woman who grew up in the South. We had fried chicken for Shabbat dinner, and there is a large Jewish community in Memphis and in Nashville where I lived later. But coming to New York, I saw whole Jewish communities. It was like another planet. The South was just the world I grew up in. I have a slightly different perspective on it now. I’m a pretty secular, cultural Jew. I’m not particularly religious. But because religion and spirituality is so present in the South, I felt a little marginal in that I didn’t share that same faith focus in my life. Being in New York, which is such a huge city with such a gamut of people and religions and practices, it’s a little easier for me to find my place up here. Being Jewish is less of an issue.