Genius Singer-Songwriter Connie Converse Who Went Off The Radar 40 Years Ago Is Now Finding Fame


A Bright Future

Connie Converse was born as Elizabeth Eaton Converse in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1924. She grew up with a strict Baptist minister for a father. As a teen in Concord High School, she was valedictorian and won eight academic awards, as well as a prestigious college scholarship. Her brother Phil, writing in 2000, described her as “a genius and a polymath,” adding “I do not use the terms lightly.” As she headed off to Mount Holyoke College, Elizabeth seemed to have a bright future ahead of her…

A Bright Future

She Rebelled And Moved To New York

But to her strict parents’ dismay, it seems that the straight-laced life wasn’t meant for Elizabeth. She dropped out of college after two years, changed her name to Connie, and moved to New York City. Rejecting her God-fearing, teetotaling upbringing, she settled in Greenwich Village among the beatniks and bohemians who gave rise to the counterculture of the mid-1950s. Connie took a job at a printing firm to pay the bills, but her dream was to make it as a musician.

She Rebelled And Moved To New York

Raw, Personal Lyrics

Converse would come back to her apartment after work and write her songs, whose hauntingly beautiful lyrics and sophisticated melodies set her apart from the Village’s other singers. In the mid-1950s, when political and traditional songs still dominated the folk music scene, the concept of a female singer-songwriter who wrote raw, personal lyrics was way ahead of its time. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell, who would later become synonymous with the genre, were still in school back then.

Raw, Personal Lyrics

Revolutionary Sadness

Connie’s songs, in contrast with what her contemporaries Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were doing at the time, were deep, intimate and eloquent. Her lyrics – which spoke of loneliness, promiscuity, quarreling lovers, frequenting saloons in the afternoons – all carried an underlying sense of sadness which, at the time, was revolutionary. While she wasn’t technically the best guitar player or the best vocalist, her songs captured a sense of melancholy long before more successful artists made it mainstream to do so.

Revolutionary Sadness

 

“She Transformed Us!”

Despite Converse’s ambitions, she was too ahead of her time and remained on the edge of the Greenwich Village music scene. But one fateful night, she was noticed by someone at a party while playing her songs. Gene Deitch, an animator who had recorded Pete Seeger and John Lee Hooker in the 1940s, was one of the first to recognize her talent. “Her name was Connie Converse, plain-Jane, wearing glasses, and not at all looking like she would fit in with our crowd. When she started to sing, she transformed us!” he recalls.

“She Transformed Us!”

A Woman Ahead Of Her Time

It was immediately apparent to Deitch that this unassumingly-dressed, bespectacled outsider was doing something completely different to everyone else he had heard before. “No, she didn’t sing jazz or blues – she sang her own songs, which she was actually composing just at the time. Most were songs of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, often told with ironic humor. They were all-musicianly, beautifully melodic, with seemingly coded lyrics. They completely hypnotized us.” For a woman to be doing this in the 1950s was quite amazing.

A Woman Ahead Of Her Time

Her Songs Were Extremely Personal

“The more I thought about it, the songs were all about herself,” says Deitch, now 90, who later went on to become an Oscar-winning animator. “I think that’s what makes the songs interesting. No matter what she was singing, it all had to do with… frustration and loneliness.” Deitch was fully aware then that Converse was doing something groundbreaking with her music. “There’s something about those songs that was extremely personal. In those days, this was something you never heard.”

Her Songs Were Extremely Personal

The Kitchen Tapes

Enchanted by Converse’s visionary tunes, Deitch invited her to record a set of songs in his kitchen in 1954. “I sat her up on a little stool, sort of a kitchen stool which she liked to sit on when she was playing, and put my microphone in front of her, and she just started to sing. And we maybe would ask a couple words or make a few remarks in between songs but she just sang one song after another,” remembers Deitch.

The Kitchen Tapes

Too Reserved For Self Promotion

After the recordings were made, Deitch and Converse’s other friends tried to help her career, even getting her an appearance on a TV show, but her songs failed to get the commercial attention they deserved. On the one hand, she was a musical genius, mastering the guitar and songwriting to a level that would have taken a lifetime for others. But she had a quiet, inward personality, was horrible at self-promotion, and didn’t push herself to do the open mics and shows that might have gotten her discovered.

Too Reserved For Self Promotion

Nobody Was Interested In Her Music

After failing to find success with her guitar songs, Converse turned to the piano, producing even more unconventional harmonies and songwriting that took her talent to another plane altogether. But still, no one would listen – she was truly the definition of what it means for someone to be “ahead of their time.” By all measures, she could have been a star in the ’60s folk renaissance. But sadly, nobody was interested in publishing her music. After years of trying and failing to make it in the music industry, Converse finally despaired and gave up.

Nobody Was Interested In Her Music

She Left New York Too Soon

She left New York City for Michigan in 1961 – ironically, the same year Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village and began the “folk revival” of the 60s. Converse relocated to Ann Arbor, where her brother lived, for a job at the University of Michigan. There too, she exceeded everyone’s expectations of her, acclimating to an academic environment as seamlessly as she had in New York’s beatnik scene. Within two years, she had moved up from a secretarial job to writer and eventually managing editor for University of Michigan’s Journal of Conflict Resolution.

She Left New York Too Soon

A Downward Spiral

However, Converse’s demanding new career eventually wore her creative and mental spirits down, and she stopped writing music soon after she moved to Ann Arbor. Feeling even more unfulfilled than before, Converse fell into depression and began drinking heavily. In the summer of 1974, while her brother and his family were on vacation, she packed up all her possessions into her Volkswagen Beetle and drove away from her Michigan home. She was never to be seen again…

A Downward Spiral

She Disappeared

Before her disappearance, she sent a series of cryptic notes to family and friends speaking of her need to make a fresh start somewhere else. “Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I can’t. [ …] Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it,” she wrote. Indeed, the people that knew her used to say she seemed “as though she’d come from outer space,” or “she had one foot in another world.”

She Disappeared

Deeply Isolated

Despite all her intelligence, uniqueness and talent – or perhaps, because of it –  Connie Converse was a woman who felt deeply isolated from the rest of society, which eventually led to her escape from it altogether. “You could tell that she was well-liked and she had lots of friends. But there was still this wall between her and other people, where it didn’t seem like she 100% connected with anybody.” But although she disappeared, she left traces of her art behind that, much later, would find the appreciation that they didn’t earn during her career.

Deeply Isolated

A Song On The Radio, 40 Years Later

For decades after her mysterious disappearance, Converse’s visionary music remained in the form of tapes in the possession of friends and relatives. She had recorded songs at home and sent them to her brother in the mail – otherwise, very few people ever got to hear her music. But in 2004, forty years after Converse disappeared, Gene Deitch was invited to the WNYC show Spinning on Air to play some of his favorite songs. During the segment, he mentioned Connie and played one of her songs, One by One.

A Song On The Radio, 40 Years Later

Bowled Over

Dan Dzula, a New York-based audio engineer, was driving in the car with his brother when he heard Converse’s song on the radio. “It bowled me over. It hit us on a very emotional level. I was so engrossed, I wanted to dive in.” Dzula knew he needed to find out who the artist was and why he had never heard of her before. “I remember thinking at the time that, ‘Well this is such amazing music, any day now someone’s going to release the album,'” he recalls.

Bowled Over

He Made An Album Of Her Recordings

But four years later, nobody had done it yet. So he contacted Deitch, who put Dzula in touch with Connie’s brother Phil, and he discovered the many other recordings she had sent him in the mail. Phil had told him that the family had assumed that Connie had taken her own life, but if she was still alive somewhere, she probably didn’t want to be found. With the help of Phil and Deitch, Dzula compiled a series of recordings into the album How Sad, How Lovely, which he released in 2009.

He Made An Album Of Her Recordings

Eerily Contemporary

“The music, considering when it was recorded, sounds eerily contemporary,” says David Herman, who joined Dzula in forming Squirrel Thing Recordings to release the album. “Her voice is really compelling. Add to that the fact this was a woman writing singer-songwriter-style music in the mid-50s, before being a singer-songwriter was a thing, and before a female songwriter was something people were used to. And with the mystery of the disappearance, the whole thing leaves you with more questions than answers.”

Eerily Contemporary

Darker, More Honest

So what is it about Converse’s music that has captured her new audience, more than half a century later? “I think that just has to do with the quality and depth of ideas that she puts forth as a songwriter,” explains Dzula. “If you think about the ’50s being sort of this glossy commercialized era, there’s something a bit darker, a bit more honest about her music and I think that’s interesting and I think that’s in some sense what people respond to.”

Darker, More Honest

Viral Fame, Forty-Five Years Later

Forty-five years after she had disappeared without a trace, the word finally started to get out about Converse’s music. Dzula’s compilation went viral on Spotify, she became the subject of a documentary and a play, and many people were inspired to delve into her work – all thanks to the tape-recording Deitch made in his kitchen, and the appeal of Converse’s timeless sound. Howard Fishman heard Converse’s song “Talking Like You” at a party in 2010 and was immediately transfixed by her one-of-a-kind sound.

Viral Fame, Forty-Five Years Later

A Play About Her Life

Fishman was so inspired by Connie, he immediately tracked down her living family members, including Phil, and began to piece together her story. He went as far as composing an album based on her later piano and voice composition manuscripts, made a non-fiction play featuring her music, and is now in the process of writing a book about her life. “The only reason behind my writing the play in the first place was to get the word out about her music and the fact that I believe she deserves much greater recognition than what she had,” Fishman said.

A Play About Her Life

A Filing Cabinet Full Of Connie

US film-maker Andrea Kannes has now made a documentary about Converse’s life in which, among other things, she interviews Connie’s brother Phil, and explores a filing cabinet full of home recordings, letters, and journals that Converse left behind. “It’s almost like she wanted it to be found and looked through,” says Kannes. “Here was a person who struggled through her whole life to feel successful, and you can tell there’s a great sadness with a lot of the things she did and the way she lived her life, but she was also incredibly funny.”

A Filing Cabinet Full Of Connie

A Captivating Character

We might never find out what really happened to Connie Converse when she drove away for good in 1974. Dzula observes, “It’s kind of a sad story but she’s still very much the hero of that. She’s a captivating character.” And although she may be long gone by now, her music is finally out in the world, captivating an audience that can truly appreciate it and inspiring other musicians, artists, and filmmakers to passionately pursue their craft, just like she did.

A Captivating Character