(Re)Discovering Connie Converse

Music streaming service Spotify has been criticized for making a ‘mindless’ way of listening to music possible. Unlike a record, which you have to turn over, or a cd that stops playing after a while, on Spotify you can endlessly stream one song after the other. The other day, however, a song started playing on my Discover Weekly playlist that utterly grabbed my attention. The song was ‘Father Neptune’ by Connie Converse. It sounded like some home recording by a contemporary ‘New Weird America’-type singer. I
listened to it again, completely struck by the way it sounded and its
self-deprecating, and highly amusing, lyrics. The song features a woman singing about her sailor husband, who quite openly loves the sea more than his wife: ‘When my man goes to sea / He steps so high and free / I think I know as I watch him go / That he has no need for me, for me’. Despite feeling rejected, she prays to ‘Father Neptune’ to keep her husband safe while he’s away at sea. Throughout, the song uses rhyme and repetition to great comic effect, and the delivery and the silly guitar riff in
between the verses make it all the more humorous. Then, there’s a verse that adds great depth to the song: ‘I know it’s a boat / That keeps him afloat / But I like to think it’s me / And if it were not for this / I would sink / To the depths / Of the sea’. All of a sudden, this quirky old-timey song about a sailor and his wife becomes about people’s ability to tell themselves little lies to make their day-to-day existence bearable – and, even worse, to know
that they’re doing this, while continuing to fool themselves nonetheless.

Intrigued by the song, I looked up the album on Spotify. Based on the quirky album artwork and the name of the artist, I thought this must be some vintage-inspired contemporary musician. A Google search revealed, however, that she was a singer from the 1950s, with a fascinating life story. The first hit – her Wikipedia page – tells you her full name (Elizabeth Eaton ‘Connie’ Converse) and her dates (born August 3, 1924 – disappeared 1974). Still further intrigued, I started to read more about this singer, who turned out to be a recently ‘(re)discovered’, but still relatively little-known musician.

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The main sources of information about Connie Converse’s life are a number of online articles and a 40-minute documentary called We Lived Alone: The Connie Converse Documentary by Andrea Kannes (2014). In these articles, the main facts about her life and her recent rediscovery are listed over and over: she was born in New Hampshire, won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and left the college after two years to move to New York City. There, she wrote and recorded songs in her Greenwich Village apartment and performed at friends’ dinner parties, accompanying herself on guitar. Halfway through the 1950s, she recorded a set of songs in the kitchen of artist and entertainer Gene Deitch, who held music gatherings at his house. While Deitch and others tried to help her become well-known, her career as a musician never took off. In 1961 – the year Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village, and after around 12 years of trying to become well-known for her music – she gave up composing and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her brother lived. Here, she got a job at the university as editor of an academic journal. Then, in 1974, after writing a set of letters to friends and family, which could be construed as ‘goodbye letters’, she drove off, never to be seen again. To this day, nobody knows what happened to her – whether she ended her life, as her brother suggests on Kannes’ documentary, or whether she decided to start afresh somewhere else. Then, in 2004, Gene Deitch played some of Converse’s songs on a music historian’s radio show, and two listeners were inspired to set up a record label for the sole purpose of making Converse’s music known to the
public. Five years later, a collection of her music was released as How Sad, How Lovely (which you can listen to here: https://connieconverse.bandcamp.com/ or purchase here: http://www.squirrelthing.com/artists/connie-converse).

The common narrative in all the articles is that Connie Converse can be seen as a ‘singer-songwriter’ long before Bob Dylan was doing his thing in Greenwich Village, and as a ‘female singer-songwriter’, writing cleverly composed songs with confessional lyrics, long before anybody like Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton or Joni Mitchell came along.

As the articles show us, Connie Converse’s story has all the ingredients for creating a fierce and devoted fanbase: her story is repeatedly told as the story of somebody who was lonely-but-brilliant, independent and intellectual, and who seemed to live in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a sense that she was ‘wrongfully’ overlooked during her lifetime, and that the large body of work she left behind (only a part of which is currently known to the public) is in desperate need of being uncovered,
written about and recognized. Also, because her songs don’t easily fit into any genre, she functions as a blank screen on which people can project their own labels: she has been classified, for instance, as ‘[a] prototype of the DIY artist’ [1], or as ‘a “singer-songwriter” before that term or style existed’. [2] Labels such as these create the distinct feeling, among her fans, that she was ‘ahead of her times’, which is another feature of the ‘textbook cult artist’ [3] that Connie Converse has been described as.

One thing the writers have in common is that they are all completely bowled over by her music. Also, many of them seem glad that Connie Converse’s music is ‘finally’ getting the recognition it deserves. And here I have to agree: Connie Converse’s music is simply great. The chords are unusual, the lyrics tell wonderful stories, and the songs are incredibly moving, as well as very, very funny. Her repertoire is very diverse, and includes songs in which she humorously criticizes the restrictions women faced in the 1950s (‘Roving Woman’), profound songs about loneliness and isolation (‘One By One’) and songs that feature surrealist humour, like ‘Unknown (A Little Louder, Love)’, which starts: ‘Once there was a trumpeter / Blew his love a ballad / That was not enough for her / So he blew her a lobster salad’. She plays around with rhythm, melody and pauses to create emotional effect, and while telling stories about domesticity and love, her songs also explore the darker side of life. This goes, for instance, for ‘Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)’. This song is about a woman living on her own in a valley that people call ‘lonesome’, who states that she isn’t ‘lonesome’ at all. After the opening, there is a beautiful melody and the speaker sings about a whippoorwill ‘sitting on [her] windowsill’ and a ‘brook running by [her] kitchen door’. We get the idea she is perfectly happy being there by herself. Then, there is a humorous twist: it turns out that everything there is ‘talking’ at her, like her lover used to do. ‘See that brook
running by my kitchen door / Well, it couldn’t talk no more / If it was you //
Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing / Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling / In the yard I keep a pig or two / They drop in for dinner like you used to do’.
This is the reason she isn’t lonely there: she has
all sorts of creatures and things reminding her of her annoying ex-lover. By
the time the song ends, she no longer ‘goes’ to the valley, as she sings in the beginning of the song, but ‘lives’ there: ‘In between two tall mountains / There’s a place they call “lonesome” / Don’t see why they call it lonesome / I’m never lonesome now I live there’. Despite the humour, there’s a sense here that the speaker can’t escape her somewhat tormented mental state – and that she is kidding herself in thinking that she isn’t lonely. Several of the songs on How Sad, How Lovely feature characters like this, with complex inner lives.

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Of course, Connie Converse’s story is not unique. Elements of it are similar to the stories of singers like Sibylle Baier or Eva Cassidy. Also, music critics have pointed out similarities between her music and that of her female contemporaries, such as Peggy Seeger and Susan Reed. One reason why Connie Converse’s story is interesting, though, is that it shows us how a new discovery can change existing periodizations and, with this, our view of music history. Indeed, the ‘discovery’ of Connie Converse sheds new light on singer-songwriters and folk artists such as Bob Dylan, female
singer-songwriters and their precursors, and the music scene in 1950s New York. This reminds us, once again, that the periods that scholars, music historians and journalists refer to in their work, and that we teach to students, are not fixed entities with clear-cut boundaries, but are artificial constructions, made on the basis of the cases at our disposal. What’s more, the story of Connie Converse shows us that becoming ‘famous’ does not necessarily depend on talent, but relies on a combination of many factors: connections, reviewers, record labels, music journalists, scholars, luck, and timing.

[1] In press releases for Howard Fishman’s play on Converse’s life, A Star Has Burnt My Eye (2015).

[2] Spinning on Air podcast (2009, https://www.wnyc.org/story/62099-connie-converse-walking-in-the-dark/).

[3] New York Times review (2016) of Fishman’s play (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/theater/a-star-has-burnt-my-eye-review.html).

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