Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

An interview with Singer/Songwriter Clare Burson

No travel details to display; An interview from a concert past, memories of melody in NYC

When a friend in New York suggested I go to Joe’s Pub to see his friend perform, I agreed.  Clare Burson was releasing a new CD, titled Silver and Ash, as a tribute to her grandmother’s escape from Holocaust Germany.  Anyone that dedicated an entire album to such a monumental event, needed to be heard.

I entered the dark east village pub late, Clare’s melodic voice already filling the room.  Her voice was haunting.  Even though she wasn’t present for the events she sang of, one could tell that they shaped her soul.  I was mesmerized not only by Clare’s musical genius but also by her inspiration to create songs based on the emotions of her family’s escape.

I was lucky enough to arrange for a telephone interview with Clare later.   I parked myself in a roadside Starbucks and greedily lapped up her voice on the phone, anxious for any insights into the beautiful lyrics I had heard the week prior.

Clare was brought up in a Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee.  The fact that her grandmother had escaped the Holocaust shaped much of her identity, her life outlook, as well as her relationship with her family. “I was always told to avoid asking my Grandmother any questions about the Holocaust.  It was a taboo topic. It really made conversation difficult as there was always something I was walking around.”

Although speaking of the past was ‘verboten’, her family eagerly spoke of and supported the future. Her parents started Clare on the violin when she was two and a half, initiating her music career.  As an adult, her father encouraged her to learn the fiddle. “I originally thought, no way—that’s redneck music,” said Clare.  “But then I tried it, and it opened up a whole new world of music for me.” Clare was speaking of folk music. “I didn’t have to be classical or top 40!” she said relieved.  In college at Brown, Clare continued playing music and also studied history, perhaps as the details of her own family history were denied to her.  Clare felt her time at Brown gave her the tools she needed to follow her passion and ‘take the road untaken.’ She decided to move beyond the taboo, and combine history and music with a family quest for answers.

It was at summer music camp where Clare realized that to understand what happened during the Holocaust, she would need to understand its multiple facets.  “There was a German musician there.  I thought to myself, ‘Wow, a real live German!’ Before I only knew Jews of German descent.” Clare was scared, yet drawn to the talented, kind man.  “I knew I needed to understand the Holocaust from both the Jew’s point of view and the German’s.  I needed to fully understand why my grandparents left. ”

And so Clare learned Yiddish and German and traveled to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship to research the Holocaust and identity politics.

“I went for inspiration, to be in the same places, to understand what happened……I wanted to dig into my emotions.”

After she returned with documents and research notes, Clare realized that she needed to go beyond Germany.  Although her Grandmother left Germany for the US on Kristallnacht, others spread themselves across Eastern Europe, her great grandparents in Latvia.  They diligently wrote letters to her Grandmother in Memphis for two years until the Nazi forces came into Latvia and took over.  Then there was silence.  Clare decided to finally break the silence and explore the depths of Latvia, Lithuania and the Ukraine, hunting for her family, hunting for answers.  Some of the answers are embedded in the lyrics of Silver and Ash. “The radio’s loud, the radio’s clear, someone’s screaming, all the world can hear.”

Clare’s quest wasn’t only to fill in the holes in her family’s history but also to help her understand her own identity and reconnect with different sides of humanity.  “I am no longer weighted down by my past. Now I can fully move forward,” said Clare. “I don’t need to tiptoe anymore.” I asked Clare how her identity changed and she laughed and said, “I’ll likely be re-negotiating it my entire life as my role changes.  But I do better understand sacrifice and human connection.”

Clare told me that it is Jewish tradition to place pebbles on a gravestone as a sign of remembrance. Her great grandparents didn’t have graves, but she felt she could leave her mark by writing and singing a tribute to them.

As I reflected on Clare’s words, I also realized that to fully understand my past, I would have to go beyond myself and understand my own family’s heritage as well.  And so instead of returning straight to San Francisco, I decided continue to journey and to move up north…toward Montana, the open land that my family settled.

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