October 11th, 2010
10:04 AM ET
Three years ago, Clare Burson - a musician by trade and a woman obsessed with Jewish history out of innate curiosity - received a grant from Six Points Fellowship, a non-profit that supports Jewish artists, that was going to enable her to write an album of Jewish music.
She used some of the money to travel from her home in Brooklyn, New York to Eastern Europe to research her family roots.
It struck her during the journey that she couldn't just do a record of Jewish music.
“I thought I was going to spend most of the time exploring a more spiritual aspect of Judaism,” Burson, 34, said recently by phone, “because I really hadn’t spent a lot of my life experiencing that part of my Jewishness. But I ended up delving more into my cultural and historical and ancestral connections.”
So her latest CD, the indie-folk “Silver and Ash,” was ultimately born from a quest to learn more about her family’s attempt to escape the Holocaust.
It was during a trip to Riga, Latvia - where two of her great-grandparents fled to from Germany in late 1938 - that Burson realized the true emotional impact of her family’s story.
By the time she traveled there, she had learned the fate of her great-grandparents, whose letters to her maternal grandmother stopped in 1941. So the trip to Riga was a chance to say goodbye and grieve, not to put a physical stone on a physical grave, but a chance to get some symbolic closure. She thought she would be prepared for the sadness. But it was more than she expected.
She cried for a whole day, she said. And she knew she needed to spend more time discovering the family history.
“It was after that experience that a bulk of the songs for Silver and Ash were written,” she said.
It was the culmination of many years of trying to find out where her family had come from, one that started when she was eight years old and was told not to ask her grandmother about anything to do with the Holocaust. It only made her more curious.
She injects that curiosity into her new songs. “Goodbye My Love” and “The Only Way” were written in part based on chats with her grandmother about life in Germany before she fled for America.
But other parts of the songs reflect Burson’s own feelings and her imagining how someone who has experienced that kind of loss could feel.
The songs also draw from the other half of Burson’s family, inspired by a 117-year-old piece of cheese that was first given by her great-great-grandmother to her son in 1893. The gift came as that son was leaving Lithuania to avoid being forced to join the czar’s army.
He went to South Africa for 10 years then to the United States. It was handed down and now resides with Burson’s parents.
“Symbolically this carries with it the story of my family and beyond that the story of the Jewish Diaspora,” she said. “When I found out about the fellowship grant I thought the cheese was the perfect metaphor for the kind of album I want to make. Something that musically can stand on its own and resonate with people regardless of their backgrounds but also expresses the nuances of my own family history and Jewish history.”
“Silver and Ash” is available on Rounder Records. Burson plays shows in Birmingham, Alabama on Wednesday; Decatur, Georgia on Thursday; Nashville, Tennessee on Friday; and Louisville, Kentucky next Saturday.
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