Singer-songwriter Clare Burson first heard about the Holocaust as an 8-year-old in her hometown of Memphis. For Burson, who is Jewish, these horrible events were more than the dry stuff of history. They would have a deep personal significance, wrapped as they were around an unsolved family mystery.
Burson learned from her family that her maternal grandmother Helga fled Leipzig, Germany, in 1938 with her brother, but that Helga’s parents—Burson’s great-grandparents—were unable to secure the visas they needed to leave Europe as war approached.
Burson wanted to know what happened to her great-grandparents. Clearly they had not survived the war, but how did they die? Were they killed by the Nazis? Her curiosity was only fueled by Helga’s deep reluctance to talk about what may have happened to her mom and dad.
It would be years before Burson, who is now 34 years old and living in Brooklyn, N.Y., would be able to satisfy that curiosity. Funded by a Six Points fellowship, Burson—who majored in history at Brown University— visited Memphis, where she interviewed her grandmothers. She traveled to Latvia, Ukraine and Lithuania. She went to Germany and visited the apartment in Leipzig where her grandmother grew up. She studied Yiddish and German. She ultimately found the truth about her great-grandparents, while also learning a great deal about her family, her Jewish heritage and herself.
Burson’s quest for the truth fuels the 10 songs on her new concept CD Silver and Ash, produced for Rounder Records by former Grammy nominee Tucker Martine. Burson is touring in support of her record and will make an appearance in Birmingham at Bottletree on December 15. Dinosaur Feathers will open.
On Silver and Ash, Burson uses subtle images—most of them drawn from her research or her grandmother’s memories—to reveal the emotional truth of what her family suffered.
On “The Only Way,” Burson imagines how her grandmother must have felt after coming to the U.S. and leaving behind her first boyfriend. On “I Will/With You,” the songwriter deals with her guilt at forcing her grandmother to confront a painful past. On “Goodbye My Love,” Burson evokes the Leipzig of her grandmother’s youth, what she calls “a love song to a lost world and time.”
Burson helps to keep her great-grandparents alive by remembering them in song and by dealing with the workings 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 telephone interview in October.
The following are additional excerpts from my conversation with Burson, conducted while she talked to me on her cell phone and enjoyed a cool, bright, 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 got married during the process of making this record. Rather than just being a sister and a daughter, I can see myself now as a wife and perhaps someday a mother. 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 bring 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 neighborhoods. 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.
Clare Burson will appear at Bottletree on Wednesday, December 15, at 9 p.m. Dinosaur Feathers will open. Tickets are $10 (advance $8). For tickets, visit www.thebottletree.com. To learn more about Burson, visit www.rounder.com or www.myspace.com/clareburson.