Continuing our series on under-appreciated musical artists we look at the life, music, and disappearance of this American singer/songwriter
In between two tall mountains
there’s a place they call Lonesome.
Don’t see why they call it Lonesome;
I’m never lonesome when I go there – from Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)
When I embarked on this series the idea was to bring to your attention talented artists who might be known in the right circles but whom maybe deserved wider attention, those who had a recording career and substantially toiled for their art but failed to make a lasting impact. However, in the case of Connie Converse we are dealing with someone whose artistic life was so slight she never actually recorded any proper albums, never signed to a label, never toured, and in 1974 at the age of 50 mysteriously disappeared never to be seen again.
And yet somehow the power of the art she did create is such that she has quietly accumulated the cultest of cult statuses. This is pretty much entirely thanks to tape recordings she made both by herself and with recording engineer Gene Deitch in the 1950’s. These enchanting, poetic songs leave a powerful mark on those who discover them and slowly music fans worldwide are beginning to do just that.
Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born to a strict Baptist family on August 3rd 1924 in the town of Laconia, New Hampshire, the second child of three and the only girl. An almost precociously intelligent and thoroughly single-minded child she won various academic awards at school before being offered a scholarship at a college in Massachusetts. However, after two years of study she dropped out, much to the chagrin of her parents, and moved to New York. Taking up employment in a printing house, she moved in to the Greenwich Village area which even then, a few years before it became the epicenter of a whole folk movement, was a bohemian district full of singers, poets, and artists.
It was around this time she began teaching herself guitar and writing songs which she would play for friends at parties. Whilst some of her songs were jaunty and displayed a dry sense of humour many of them seemed to be expressing a sadness borne of loves that nearly were, never were, or could have been. In ‘We Lived Alone’ for example she sang;
We lived alone, my house and I.
We had the earth, we had the sky.
I had a lamp against the dark,
and I was happy as a lark.
Before ending the song;
I had a job; my wants were few.
They were until I wanted you.
And when I set my eyes on you,
nothing else would do, nothing else would do.
Or in ‘One By One’, which is maybe as sad and beautiful a song as anyone has ever written she sang;
We go walking in the dark.
We go walking out at night.
And it’s not as lovers go,
two by two, to and fro;
but it’s one by one
Concluding with the devastating lines;
If I had your hand in mine
I could shine, I could shine
like the morning sun –
like the sun.
Fast forward 20 years and deeply honest and introspective lyrics like this were being sung by many singer/songwriters, male and female, but in the mid 1950’s such naked candour from a bespectacled, middle class woman singing and accompanying herself on a lone guitar was almost unheard of. These were poetic confessionals, songs that betrayed vulnerability and longing. This lyrical tone wasn’t completely unheard of at the time. Female country or blues singers would sing songs of men who had done them wrong or love unrequited, but would use a familiar technique of marrying a sad lyric to an upbeat tune, the music sweetening the sourness of the words. In Converse’s songs there is no such sweetening, only the slightly formal tone of her singing acting as any kind of brake on the emotional content.
Converse never pushed herself as a performer, preferring to play for friends in small gatherings, and yet despite this people who knew her suggest that she had genuine ambitions to make it as a musician. She apparently played at various small venues in and around Greenwich, and it was via this that she came to the attention of Deitch. Maybe she was too ahead of her time, maybe she never pushed herself hard enough, maybe she was just plain unlucky. Whatever the reasons her ambitions never came to fruition and in 1961, around about the same time as a young Bob Dylan found himself in the Village for the first time, she abandoned her music and New York and left for Ann Arbor, Michigan where she spent the rest of the decade working initially as a secretary before becoming the managing editor of the Journal Of Conflict Resolution where she would remain in employment until early 1972, when the journal was sold without her knowledge and moved to Yale. She seemingly chose not to follow it.
By this time Converse was both physically and mentally unwell, needing unspecified major surgery, and feeling burnt out and depressed. Friends rallied around and funded a six-month trip to England, although like her illness details of this trip are non-existant.
What is known is that she returned to Ann Arbor and stayed there until August 1974. Her last known acts were to write letters to various friends and family stating her desire to start a new life in a new place. Having posted the letters, and before they had a chance to reach their recipients, she had packed much of her belongings in to her Volkswagon Beetle and left town. She was never seen or heard from again.
Of the belongings Converse did leave behind the most significant was a large filing cabinet full of writings, including songs written for piano and voice she had never performed for anyone (which have since been recorded and released as an lp entitled Connie’s Piano Songs), and also reel-to-reel tapes of the songs she had. In addition to the songs recorded by Deitch they were finally released in 2009 on the independent label Sqirrel Thing Recordings, largely thanks to Deitch who felt they deserved to be heard. Since then her music has begun to find an audience, albeit slowly. This article can be seen as an aid to that slow but steady process.
Connie Converse would be 90 years old now. Maybe she found some kind of peace after her disappearance, maybe only further solitude. Maybe she is still alive, maybe she isn’t. There are a lot of ‘maybes’ surrounding the life of this most enigmatic of singers. What is for certain is the magic and beauty of the slim musical legacy she left behind, a legacy which like the loves and characters in her songs seems to exist in a state of liminality, almost there, visible and yet somehow hardly there at all.
How sad, how lovely,
how short, how sweet,
to see that sunset
at the end of the street.
Like life, like a smile,
like the fall of a leaf,
how sad, how lovely,
how brief. – from ‘How Sad, How Lovely’