clare burson

silver and ash

Archive for songs

long way down

it’s a long way down

look out the window
fields blur by
bare from the harvest
blackbirds fly

it’s a long way down

arrive by the river
bright and strange
dirt roads to nowhere
far-off places

it’s a long way down

confused conversation
thick slow words
waiting for letters
but noone’s heard

distract me
don’t ask me

it’s a long long long way down


in december of 1938, shortly after arriving in the united states, my grandmother and her brother took a train from new york to their new home in memphis, tn.  one Saturday afternoon in early 2008, i called and asked her to tell me about the train ride and her first impressions of her new life.  9 times out of 10, when i ask my grandmother for details about her childhood in germany or her departure from there, her response is, “i don’t remember, clare.  it was so long ago.”  but every once in a while, especially when i am particularly relentless with my questioning, she will surprise me, and herself . . .


it was december when we left new york for memphis. i came from germany, a cold country where december is a cold month.  but here, in america, we travelled by train through areas where children played outside in short skirts and short pants and no jackets like it was springtime!

i remember how long it took to get there.  it was such a long train trip to memphis. nobody goes by train any more, but in those days, that was the only way, and it took us a day and a half! i just couldn’t imagine anything being so far away.  and that’s only a portion of the united states!  it was such a long way down!

once we got to memphis, i really don’t remember who picked us up or who introduced us to whom.  there were so many people. my experience was one of a whole new beginning – something very thrilling when you are so young.  it wasn’t like our mother had said, ‘okay, next week you leave home for a new life in the united states.” we had to wait a long time to leave germany, many many months  and there was so much excitement in the fact that it was finally happening. i’m sure people felt quite sorry for us.  it was a sad thing, what we left behind.  but there are so many different sides to one happening, and everybody was lovely and helpful and nice.


after she was finished, she laughed and asked if i was going to write a song with what she had told me.


the world turns on a dime

at a small café
in a big city
sits a man with his life in his hands
watch the nod of his head
his eyes, heavy-lidded

cause the world turns on a dime

there’s a girl
with a smile
on a boat with her brother
sailing for a visit of a year
she says goodbye to her home
and all things familiar

cause the world turns on a dime

take a train
back and forth
over the border
with suitcases piled overhead
will the officer scowl and stop before passing
will he stop before passing

cause the world turns on a dime

at some point in the late 1870’s and after years of study and hard work, young yehezkel wainman (my great great grandfather) acquired all of the necessary papers to begin medical school. so one day, with papers in hand, he went to register with the appropriate authorities.

along the way, yehezkel stopped at a café for a cup of coffee or to meet a friend. while he was waiting, he fell asleep. maybe he had traveled from his home to register and was tired from a long journey. maybe his friend kept him waiting. either way, the coffee didn’t do the trick.

while he was sleeping, someone stole his papers. there were no other copies. crazy to imagine a world without xerox machines or computers . . . anyway, without the papers, there was no medical school. so back he went, to pushville, in kovne guberniia, and opened an inn.


a year or so ago, my aunt showed me an old photo album she had recently unearthed. in it were pictures of my grandmother and her brother from the first few years after arriving in the united states. the album begins on the boat taking them from england to new york city.

i was struck by how happy they looked, my grandmother and her brother, how carefree. my grandmother strolled arm in arm with a handfull of different young men. she was stylish, in heels and a smartly tailored coat. her stunning smile belied nothing of the grim reality: she and her brother left germany on november 9, 1938, the morning of krystallnacht, and said goodbye to their parents in the chaos of the leipzig train station.


elsewhere in this blog i have written about my grandfather’s escape from nazi germany: my grandfather, eric, was in retail or manufacturing – i forget which. anyway, planning his escape, he took the train to rotterdam and back again to berlin countless times, on ‘buying’ trips. on weekends, eric carted luggage full of his belongings to holland, where he left the contents with friends. he then would return to germany with empty suitcases. a dangerous proposition, what with nazi soldiers monitoring travel. these trips stopped when he was approached by a hostile officer inquiring as to why he was returning to berlin with an empty suitcase. somehow, granddaddy talked his way out of a potentially damning situation and made it out of germany shortly thereafter.

in the sea

just a heads up to let you know that i have posted my first song for this project on the ‘song’ page: ‘in the sea.’ i recorded it with jay sherman-godfrey in greenpoint and queens. jay engineered/ mixed and played bass and rhodes and electric guitar. i sang and played electric and acoustic guitars. tony leone played drums. jay’s friend kieran engineered the drums. plug your headphones into your computer so you can fully appreciate the ambient sounds thrown in – recordings from my trip to eastern europe last summer . . .



in november 1938 my maternal grandmother (in the leopard-y coat) and her brother (far right) left their home in leipzig, germany for the united states. after a presumably long journey, they arrived in new york city, spent a week in far rockaway with distant relatives, and boarded a train to memphis, tn.

in pictures of them from their trip across the ocean, they are young and smiling. my grandmother in particular looks to be quite the catch – impeccably stylish and constantly canoodling with one or another dapper looking fellow . . .

my great grandparents eventually left germany as well. however, as it was too late for them to escape to the west, they headed east to riga, latvia. in 1940 the soviet army invaded latvia. the wehrmacht followed one year later. my great grandparents did not survive the war.

my childhood was marked by an uneasy silence surrounding my grandmother’s escape. it was a silence that eventually led me to pick up and move to germany on two separate occasions in the late 1990s. while there, i lived in munich, frankfurt, berlin, and cologne. i did a lot of digging. i filled in the spaces as best i could.

my experiences from this time could constitute an entire blog’s worth of reflections on their own that aren’t worth going into now. however, i will mention, that while i was there, i had the opportunity to visit leipzig with my grandmother, mother, aunt, uncle and cousin. we walked through the market square and by the town hall. we stopped in the rain at the empty lot where the old synagogue had been. we found my grandmother’s old neighborhood, amazingly still intact. as was the apartment building where she had lived with her parents and brother. we rang the doorbell of the apartment, hoping for a glimpse inside. no one was home.

seven years later, in november 2003, 65 years after my grandmother left leipzig for the first time, i returned again. i was on a two week tour of germany, and one of my shows was at a club in leipzig. i remembered the address. i also remembered that the building was not too far from the train station. when i arrived, i asked my driver to take me there.

to make a longish story somewhat shorter, someone was home this time. a single mother with two daughters welcomed me into her home, where i spent close to an hour in the rooms my great grandparents had shared with their children generations ago.

the next day, i wrote the following song:


here where the cold wind blows across the fields and the magpies gather all that glitter – here where the old men speak of long lost things in a language that never seems to matter – i think of you – here where your white walls color in the past and the windows are looking in on yesterday – i hear your voices quiet like the night – i picture you in everything – i think of you – 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 like for you here – what life should have been like here with you