Thursday, December 17, 2015

How Sad, How Lovely. The Disappearance Of Connie Converse.

The story of Connie Converse is one of the saddest in the history of music. Over 40 years after she disappeared music fans around the world are beginning to realize her importance in the history of modern music. In the summer of 1974 she wrote farewell letters to family and friends saying that she was leaving to start a new life. She waited for the news that Nixon was finally resigning as President and then packed her belongings in her Volkswagen Beetle and drove away never to be seen again. So who is or was Connie Converse and why is she so important?. She is important because she was years or decades ahead of her time. Connie Converse was the first ever in the genre of female singer-songwriter and she left a small but brilliant legacy of music behind.

                                                                                 I must admit I had never heard of Connie until a couple of weeks ago. I discovered her music purely by chance on the same day I found Sibylle Baier on Youtube. I was looking for a song by Anne Briggs at the time. I stumbled across Connie and listened to one song which aroused my interest and I ordered a CD called How Sad, How Lovely which is the title of one of her songs. The package arrived today and I must say it is a most attractively designed album as well. It contains a really nice booklet which includes contributions from her brother and also the man who first recorded her songs.
                                                                                 I'll just tell you briefly what I know about Connie. She was born Elizabeth Eaton Converse in 1924 in  New Hampshire into a strict Baptist family. At School she was quite brilliant and won a scholarship to Mount Holyoake College but dropped out after two years and moved to New York City where she lived in Greenwich Village which was the centre of the Bohemian world in 1950's America. It was here that she acquired the nick-name Connie because she came from Concord.  It was at this time that Connie first began to write poems and songs and accompanying herself on guitar. She came to the attention of Gene Deitch who is a famous animator who recorded Connie's songs at his home in the mid-50's. She failed to attract any commercial interest though apart from one appearance on a TV Show presented by Walter Cronkite. In 1961 the year that Bob Dylan arrived in New York she left Greenwich Village and moved to Ann Arbor Michigan. I think that was a shame because a year later the whole world was following the Folk Scene in New York and she could have been part of it and got the attention her music deserved. Anyway, well over a decade after she dropped out of college Connie returned to academic life and worked her way up to being Managing Editor of 'The Journal Of Conflict Resolution'. Her only music interest was playing for family & friends. By the early 1970's though she was suffering with depression and her employer and friends pooled together to send her on a six month sabbatical to England. Connie described this trip as one of the only times in her life she was allowed to have 'unproductive fun'. I wonder where she went in this country and who she met?. Finally in 1974 she made her decision to disappear.

                                                                                  After I had read the booklet I played the CD and I must say now after listening to it twice I am very impressed indeed. Nine of the eighteen tracks are the recordings she made with Gene Deitch and you can hear little snippets of conversation between the songs. Connie sings in a very formal style. This is the 1950's you must remember, before singers started slurring the words and calling everyone Babe etc. It is the subject matter though of hanging around in bars, playing poker and being taken home by strangers that makes the songs ahead of their time. White middle-class women didn't sing about these subjects before. Although a lot of the songs sound quite jolly you can sense an underlying sadness below. There is no other singer like Connie Converse. Just on a couple of songs I could hear vague echoes of Dory Previn, another great singer who came along a lot later who I really like as well. A lot of the songs began life as poems and you can hear that in the very poetic imagery of a lot of the songs. I'll have put one song below so you can judge for yourself.

                                                                                 There is some sort of a happy ending to the story because in 2004 Gene Deitch who had recorded Connie 50 years before was invited onto a radio show. He played one of her songs. Two listeners of the show Dan Dzula and David Herman were inspired to track down her recordings. Gene Deitch was happy to collaborate. Also they found a filing cabinet at Connie's brother's house containing further treasures which Connie had left with him all neatly filed and labelled as if she meant them to be found. The album which I received today was finally released. The legend of Connie Converse is finally beginning to grow.

What actually happened to her though? If Connie was still alive today which is very unlikely she would be now 91. I find it hard to believe that she took her own life. If that was true why did she pack her car so meticulously?. I have wondered if she returned to England where she spent a happy six months. We shall probably never know but I am really pleased that her music is finally after 50 years getting the recognition that it deserves.

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