Family’s escape from Germany inspires a musical journey

Thursday, September 30, 2010 | by emily savage

Growing up in Memphis, then Nashville, songwriter Clare Burson was surrounded by honky-tonk and Christian rock. She took the opposite route and infused Judaism into her music.

“Being in an area that’s full of the Christian music industry, I realized how much my Jewishness influenced the way I was writing [songs],” says Burson, 34.

Aclare burson Photo Credit to Erica Beckman
Singer-songwriter Clare Burson photo/erica beckman
Her family history steered her, as well. Burson’s grandmother and great-uncle escaped Germany in their late teens in 1938, the morning before Kristallnacht, and fled to Tennessee. Her great-grandparents stayed behind and made their way to Latvia, never to reunite with their children.

The saga of her family, and her uncovering of it years later, has been turned into a well-received concept album by Burson, a classically trained violinist who is slated to perform Tuesday, Oct. 5 at Café du Nord in San Francisco.

In 2007, Burson was awarded a Six Points Fellowship, a grant that — in partnership with Avoda Arts, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and JDub Records — supports creative young Jewish adults. She used the funds to do research across Europe for two years, after which she spent another year recording the album in Brooklyn, where she currently lives, and Portland.

The result was “Silver and Ash,” which was released Sept. 14. The album employs both Burson’s musical prowess and recorded slices of life in Germany, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. On the album she sings and plays violin, guitar and synthesizer, with friends helping on percussion and bass.

She also uses snippets of recordings she made while traveling in Eastern Europe: conversations in Yiddish and Hebrew with older men at synagogues, bells chiming, birds chirping, rustling grass and shoes on cobblestone streets.

The 10-song album evokes longing, pain and fear as Burson uses stark imagery such as suitcases at a train station, empty boats floating on the green-blue sea, missing children and the stillness of life in old black-and-white photographs.

The music has a dreamy, old-world feel as well, with haunting folk melodies on violin and acoustic guitar, and Burson’s melancholic vocals.

Though the finished product is generating a lot of press, including a recent piece in the New York Times, Burson’s creative journey from start to finish turned out to be more difficult than she’d initially imagined.

For example, toward the end of a two-week solo trip to Eastern Europe in 2007, she went to a small Latvian museum of Jewish life during World War II. It was cold and rainy, and the emotion of the moment swarmed over her as she realized she didn’t have a strong enough connection to what she was trying to learn about.

“It’s one thing to read about history,” Burson explains. “[But] it’s another be where it happened. It was too much for me to do by myself. I needed to better understand who I was mourning.”

After returning from Europe, she went to Memphis to interview her family. There, she discovered a stack of letters written by her great-grandparents in Latvia to her grandmother, the fresh immigrant to the United States.

“[The letters] brought me closer to my grandmother and gave me a sense of who her parents were,” Burson says. “It opened up the lines of communication between the generations.”

The letters, found in chronological order, stopped abruptly on June 14, 1941.

At one point, Burson’s grandmother and great-uncle tried to contact the Latvian Jewish community to find out what had happened to their parents. A ship that they were supposed to be aboard was bombed before it left the dock in Riga, but apparently they weren’t on board (even though some of their possessions were).

On “Silver and Ash,” Burson explores what might have happened to her great-grandparents, as their fate remains unclear. The song “In the Sea” describes the items left behind on the boat — white wedding china, cut-crystal glasses, tarnished silver — and describes an “unknown destination.”

It was because of Burson’s research into her past that she landed her other current gig as an educator and tour guide at the Tenement Museum on New York’s Lower East Side.

“Having gone through this process and written these songs, I’ve come to realize how universal these themes are — stories of loss, family, love,” she says. “It’s a Holocaust story, but it’s also an immigration story.”


Clare Burson performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday Oct. 5 at Café Du Nord, 2171 Market St., S.F. $10. http://www.cafedunord.com.