Our elders are assumed to be wiser simply because they’re older than we are and have already seen and done everything we’ve seen and done, only they did it before us and—by virtue of that fact and added years of reflection—have accumulated much additional knowledge, regardless of the topic or task—politics, finances, baking bread, throwing a knuckleball, whatever. These are not necessarily matters of grave importance, but if you’ve ever talked to a septuagenarian about, say, the best way to plant tomatoes, you’d never know that lives and deaths were not at stake.
Except when they are. Singer/songwriter Clare Burson’s grandmother fled Germany the morning of Kristallnacht in November 1938, hours before Hitler’s troops launched their infamous pogrom against the Jewish citizenry and their property. This narrow escape and the fates of those left behind were never spoken of in Burson’s family, until Burson herself began digging for clues, eventually broaching the topic with her grandmother and traveling to Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, investigating her grandmother’s childhood, trying to connect it to her own and to come to terms with a long-kept family secret.
The songs on her rich, moving new album, Silver and Ash (Rounder 2010), evolved from the experience, and from the stories Burson discovered as she chased down ghosts from her ancestral roots. A piece like “Look Close” emanates from Burson’s sister’s resemblance to their great-grandmother. As she looks at a photograph, she tries to discern meaning from the familiar features captured there:
My, my, you have her beautiful eyes
Can you see them
All the things you dreamed of
Written in silver and ash
See how they hide in the shape of her chin
In the smooth of her skin
“I Will / With You,” the only real rock song on the record, is fraught with the weight of bringing heartbreaking memories to the fore once more. It contains an extraordinary verse in which Burson implores her grandmother to share perhaps more than she is willing to:
Remember for me
Corner the quiet
That covers the sound
Of whispers you ran from
And time ran around
Tears on the floorboards
Remember it now
And I will with you
Remember it now
Another uptempo track, “Everything’s Gone,” is a tale of being trapped and eschewing even the notion of escape, knowing it is impossible. “There’s no way out,” Burson repeats over and over. “Everything’s gone but we’re all still here.” In the context of the Holocaust, it is a frightening scenario not lightened by the lilting pace of the song.
That context, though, is somewhat elastic. If you are unaware of the concept in play—there’s nothing in the album package that explains it—you can still appreciate the songs simply as they are. Burson’s lyrics are impressionistic rather than literal, subversively submerging listeners in their warmth without announcing the specific space and time of their stories.
The Holocaust narrative, however, adds dimension and heft to the songs, which makes several of them almost too sad to bear. “Goodbye My Love” is a heartrending farewell in which happy memories feed the singer’s sadness and protect her from it, simultaneously. The lyrics themselves are mere snippets of memories (“We took the train to the seashore / Buried our toes in the sand / Lost to the waves and the salted sunshine / Goodbye my love”), yet Burson’s voice—so vulnerable in this setting—is lifted up by the melody and spare instrumentation (guitar, piano, violin, mellotron), and it becomes apparent that the goodbyes she sings of are final.
The same tender sadness permeates “Magpies,” which closes the album with Burson standing where her ancestors have stood, surrounded by spirits of those people she knows only because she’s sought them out. “I hear your voices / Quiet like the night,” she sings quietly, “I picture you in everything.” This recognition flows into the overwhelming bridge:
Sometimes I think that you might have been
Something like rainbows on water
Sometimes I think of how life must have been for you here
What life could have been for you here
What life should have been here with you
Burson shares what she learned, remarkable stories of strong people in fragile situations. If you didn’t know the context in which she wrote them, they’d just be good songs; understanding the full measure of Burson’s project, however, adds power to Silver and Ash, a quiet yet vivid reminder of a time, a place, and a people who bore extraordinary burdens and those who still hear the voices of their ghosts.