Friday, March 29, 2013

29 March 1959 “Connie Converse, the Lost Musician of the 1950’s: How Sad & How Lovely”

connieconverseatpiano  Every so often, as I sift through my ephemera of the 1950’s, I come upon little moments that feel so poignant and almost sad. This can manifest itself in so many ways. In this instance, with Connie Converse, it made me pause and think, “If only Connie had been been in this generation, her music would have been able to find an outlet, probably through self promotion on YouTube. The vast variety of musical styling's today would have found a place for her wonderful folksy, bluesy hybrid sound of music. She was an artist a bit early for her time and so went for the most part unnoticed. Her story, as well, is both romantic and tragic.

Before we go any further let’s hear a tune by this lost and unappreciated artist of the 1950’s. “The empty pocket waltz”

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Although today we are even more so pigeon-holed, stamped, branded and then sold to then we were in the 1950s. This concept was just underway in the post war years with its increase in production and management of musicians. While the big band style was giving way and melding with blues to create Rock and Roll and the big Hit Parade tunes were still popular for the audience at large, little pockets of simple, antiquated, rural, and more homespun music was just finding its way back to the people.
Before the mad craze of Ragtime at the turn of the century and the mass production of phonographs to spread that craze around the world, music was more local. The more “Classical”, if you will, or high brow music was of a certain class and listened to by the aide of live performers. The fun sing along songs of the middle class were becoming available with mass produced sheet music. And many a late Victorian drawing room or  parlor, over festooned with embroidered and beribboned antimacassar, were filled with  the sound of the family or neighborhood sing along to such popular tunes. But, for the most part, music was not available en masse as we take it for granted today. It had to be performed and made up live to be enjoyed.

Before the wire-less and phonograph there was music made by people and voice and was only as intricate or as complex as your education and skill allowed. So, by the post WWII era, popular music from Radios and records had made music into a certain style or form. A commodity to be bought and sold at large. There were, of course, pockets here and there, blues, early Country and the like, but by and large in the 1950’s, music really was a certain way. It might have a few subtle nuances between a teen’s rock and roll and mother’s hit parade or sing along with Mitch Miller, but by and large it had similar sounds and instruments. The acoustic guitar, for mass audience, was not really a major part of America at large.

So, when we hear the lovely and story-telling lyrics and simple acoustic accompaniment along with folk inspired two-step mingled with a waltz, it can almost sound modern in the context of the 1950’s. And yet, that is what Connie Converse was doing. Here is a great little run down of her life story:

“Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1924. She grew up in Concord as the middle child in a strict Baptist family; her father was a Baptist minister. She attended Concord High School, where she was valedictorian and won eight academic awards. She was awarded an academic scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. After two years' study, she left the College and moved to New York City.
During the 1950s she worked for the Academy Photo Offset printing house in New York's Flatiron District and lived in Greenwich Village. She started calling herself Connie, a nickname she had acquired in New York. She began writing songs and performing them for friends, accompanying herself on guitar.

Her music came to the notice of animator and amateur recording engineer Gene Deitch, who had made tape recordings of artists like John Lee Hooker and Pete Seeger in the 1940s. Deitch made a number of tape recordings of Converse in the kitchen of his house in Hastings-on-Hudson in the mid-1950s. But she failed to attract any commercial interest in her music. Her only public performance was a brief television appearance in 1954 on "The Morning Show" on CBS with Walter Cronkite, which Deitch helped to arrange.

In 1961, she left New York for Ann Arbor, Michigan, where her brother Philip was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. She worked in a secretarial job, and then as Managing Editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution from 1963. Her only musical involvement continued to be playing for friends at parties.
By 1973, Connie was burnt out and depressed. Her colleagues and friends pooled their money to finance a six-months' trip to England for her. The journal, which meant so much to her, had left Michigan for Yale at the end of 1972, after being "auctioned off" without her knowledge. She was facing the need for major surgery.

In August 1974, she wrote a series of letters to her family and friends, talking about her intention to make a new life somewhere else. By the time the letters were delivered, she had packed her belongings in her Volkswagen Beetle and driven away, never to be heard from again.

In January 2004, Gene Deitch -- by then 80 years old and living in Prague since 1961 -- was invited by New York music historian David Garland to appear on his radio show Spinning on Air. Deitch played some of his own recordings, including one of Connie's songs, "One by One".

Two of Garland's listeners, Dan Dzula and David Herman, were inspired to try and put together an album of Connie's music. There were two sources: the tapes in Deitch's collection in Prague, and her brother Philip's collection of recordings which she had sent him in the 1950s. In March 2009, How Sad, How Lovely, containing 17 songs by Connie Converse, was released by Lau derette Recordings.”
Let’s hear some more of her music before we get to a great radio program where they discuss Connie and her music. This video here is so entrancing, as it is made using antqiue and vintage dolls and images. It really evokes the lovely song by Connie. The video was done by The Luminous Playhouse Theater Company 2009, by Anne Garland.

This is the wonderful radio program worth listening to about Connie Converse. It should be playable from this here. Here is a synopsis of what the story discusses concerning this unrecognized treasure.
During the 1950s Connie Converse lived in New York City writing and singing thoughtful, emotional, smart, witty, personal songs. She accompanied herself on guitar, a "singer/songwriter" before that term or style existed. Connie sang her songs at gatherings of friends, and once on television. The music industry of her day couldn't pigeonhole her, and didn't welcome her. Discouraged, Connie left New York in 1960, and in 1974 she wrote a series of farewell letters to her friends and family, packed up her Volkswagen Bug and disappeared. She has not been heard from since.
Connie Converse Walking In the Dark, a special edition of WNYC's Spinning On Air with David Garland, airs many of Connie's songs for the first time, and tells her story with interviews, commentary, and readings from her letters, journals, and poetry. Joining host David Garland are Oscar-winning animator Gene Deitch, who knew and recorded Connie in New York, and the voices of Connie's brother, Philip Converse, and actress Amber Benson, who reads Connie's writings.
This program was first broadcast March 19, 2009.

I hope you take some time to discover and listen to this once great musician and consider she may still be out there somewhere. I like to imagine her on a  tattered porch of an old rambling Victorian farmhouse in the back woods of Vermont or Maine. There are mountains, and maybe the soft gurgle of a Spring brook. Chickens scratch about, mingling with the soft coo of birds and the tune of the leaves as her only audience. In an old 1950’s wrap around dress, slightly frayed at the edges, a pair of old cat eye glasses, taped so as not to fall, perched upon her proud countenance; she plays her tunes for herself and for music’s sake. There are many remarkable things in the 1950’s and I believe Connie Converse was one of them.

Happy Homemaking and How Sad, How Lovely, and How Green:


  1. Wow. Amazing post. I like to think that she is out there as well. Hopefully content.

  2. Amy is so correct, this is an amazing post. I feel connected to Connie because Connie is like most of us. We all have something that is pretty incredible, whether it is singing, dancing, painting, gardening, teaching, or what not. Most of us will never be recognized for our abilities and will never be the next Garth Brooks, Madonna, or Beatles(tried to be broad in my swath). But we all can take this post and re-evaluate our lives and appreciate our simplicity in life first.

    I shared a post on my blog-which I would like to share about as it is about another woman who most will never remember, but I felt I had to share her story.
    By the way, I ended up buying all the handmade as well as vintage 40's and 50's farm dresses. I could not allow this woman's craft to be parsed out.



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