Arts & Culture

Music, History, and How I Found My Jewish Voice

My name is Clare Burson. I write songs, sing, and play the guitar and the violin. I have independently released 2 full length albums of my own material and am preparing to release the third on Rounder Records sometime this … Read More

By / January 18, 2010


My name is Clare Burson.

I write songs, sing, and play the guitar and the violin.

I have independently released 2 full length albums of my own material and am preparing to release the third on Rounder Records sometime this spring. My music has been described as "world-weary like Lucinda Williams’, expressive like Kathleen Edwards’, mysterious like Jolie Holland’s."

I grew up in Tennessee and currently live in Brooklyn, NY.

From March 2007 until March 2009 I was a Six Points Fellow.

 

I heard about the Six Points Fellowship from a college friend. Even before applying, I felt like I’d won the lottery – the fact that something like this existed just blew my mind. In years past, I had searched in vain for any sort of fellowship or grant that could fund a somewhat commercially-minded singer-songwriter like myself. Here it was – finally! If selected, I would be funded to make a new album, plus the Six Points community could provide me with a safe and stimulating space to bring my Jewishness into my creative work in a way that hopefully could expand my reach as an artist instead of limiting it.

You see, despite the fact that I was (and still am) a decidedly secular musician and songwriter, I had been toying with the idea of incorporating my Jewishness into my music for years. I didn’t want to lose the universal tone of my earlier work, but I did want to create a cycle of songs that spoke to my experience as a Jewish woman from the American South with grandparents and great grandparents who had come to Memphis, TN (of all places), fleeing persecution in Central and Eastern Europe.

I grew up within the Reform community in Tennessee, with my southernness and Jewishness coexisting comfortably – I ate fried chicken at Shabbes dinner and recited the Hamotzi with a thick Southern drawl. I played classical violin and eventually branched out into bluegrass and old time fiddling when my family moved from Memphis to Nashville. In college, I majored in modern European history at Brown University. During that time, I set aside my southernness and delved into my family’s roots in Europe. I learned Yiddish, played klezmer music, and took some Russian history courses, but mostly, I focused on Germany, the country my maternal grandparents fled in 1937 and 1938 for new lives in the United States. I learned German, and I lived in Germany for 2 years.

When I came home, I turned my attention back to the present. I spent a few years playing folk music in Boston and eventually moved back to Nashville to make a go of it as a singer-songwriter in Country Music USA. I grew as a musician and writer and began to develop a sound and songwriting style of my own. However, the Jewish element of my life was missing – both in terms of a community and in terms of my music. So, in June of 2005, I relocated to Brooklyn to focus on creating a life for myself that could better integrate my life as a musician with my love of Jewish history, ritual, and culture.

My Six Points project, SILVER AND ASH, did just that. It allowed me to bring together two of my greatest passions. Of course, it evolved over the course of the 2 year fellowship term. I began with the idea of wanting broadly to create fundamentally ‘Jewish’ work within the more secular frame of Americana music. That ‘Jewish’ core eventually revealed itself to me as the heritage and history I had studied in college – the stories told to my by one grandmother and the stories kept silent by another. In the end, I created a song cycle, performance piece, and a songbook, which imagine my grandmother’s life in Germany, from her birth in 1919 to her escape in 1938, and explore my own struggles with rupture, silence, guilt, empathy, and continuity.

At the risk of sounding totally corny, the process of creating SILVER AND ASH changed my life. On a nuts and bolts level, the funding and the career development sessions provided by Six Points allowed me quit my ‘day job’ and focus fully on my music. On an artistic level, I feel like I have created the most meaningful and accomplished collection of songs thus far in my career. On a personal level, in addition to providing community and texture to my life, this project has brought my family closer together – bringing new stories to light and encouraging dialogue on subjects long considered taboo.

I don’t know quite how to wrap this up other than to say, thank you – to the Foundation for Jewish Culture, JDub Records, and Avoda Arts, the UJA Federation of NYC – and to anyone eligible to apply – send in your application!