- Chrissy Hamlin
What happened to Singer Songwriter Connie Converse?
Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Connie Converse was arguably the first modern American female singer-songwriter. She was writing and recording her own music in the mid-1950s, but then she vanished without a trace, in August 1974. In this blog post we discuss her life, her mysterious disappearance, and her music.
Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born on August 3, 1924, in Laconia, New Hampshire. She was a highly intelligent & creative child who was later awarded a full scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. However, Elizabeth did not complete her studies, she changed her name to "Connie" and made her way to New York City, to pursue her dream of becoming a writer & musician. She rejected her parents' traditional teetotal, God-fearing upbringing, for a more creative life in Greenwich Village, where the beatniks & bohemians were creating their very own counter culture in the 1950's.
Converse had a political essay published and was also writing poetry, painting & drawing cartoons, taking road trips, and teaching herself to play guitar. She began writing songs and recording them at home with a Crestwood 404 tape-recording machine.
The American folk music scene was still dominated by traditional, political songs sung mainly by men at that time - the concept of the solo acoustic female singer-songwriter was ahead of it's time. Connie Converse paved the way for future artists like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.
When Converse moved to an apartment in Harlem that had a piano, almost overnight, the style and sophistication of her music changed and her new voice began to evolve. At this time, Converse self-recorded a tape of all her old guitar songs. This project seems to be both a retrospective and a declaration of where she wanted to head next musically.
Converse was unconcerned with her physical appearance and her image. She did not sport any makeup and often wore glasses. With her long plain dresses, sensible cardigans, and tied her hair back in a bun or ponytail she looked more like a school teacher than a musician . Connie was a very private & sometimes solitary person, and there is no proof of her having any serious personal or sexual relationships. It has been suggested by those who knew her best, that she was probably a lesbian, although she never herself confirmed or denied the fact.
Despite her ambitions to be a singer songwriter, she did not play conventional live gigs, although she did appear live on The Morning Show on CBS in 1954. That same year, she recorded a set of songs in the kitchen of her friend, Gene Deitch. He had recorded Pete Seeger and John Lee Hooker back in the 1940s. Deitch and her other friends tried to help Converse's career, but it just never took off - she felt that she just couldn't quite connect with people through her music. She never got a recording contract or became that well-known.
In January 1961 - the same year that Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village - frustrated by her inability to find the right audience for her songs, Converse decided to turn her back on the music scene. She left New York and got job at the University of Michigan, where she did secretarial work and wrote for the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 1963. When the Journal closed down, she lost her job and then discovered she needed to have a hysterectomy, which had a devastating effect on her mental health.
She was nearing middle age, she had no job and no special person in her life and she could no longer have children. Unfulfilled & feeling very depressed, she began drinking heavily. A holiday to London funded by her friends, and then a trip to Alaska with her mother, did very little to lift her mood.
In August, 1974, one week after she had celebrated her 50th birthday, she sent a series of letters to family and friends that spoke of her need to "make a fresh start and begin a new life somewhere else".
She wrote, "Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I can't. [...] Human society fascinates me & awes me & fills me with grief & joy; I just can't find my place to plug into it."
Connie Converse packed all of her personal belongings into her Volkswagon Beetle car, drove away from her house, and was never heard from again. The mystery of what actually became of her is still unsolved to this day. Her family believe she may have taken her own life, probably by driving her car into a lake or a river somewhere, but neither her car nor her body has ever been found. Many others like to think she miraculously discovered the "new life" she had written about in her letters, had reinvented herself, and did not want to be found.
Converse's life & songs were destined to be forgotten, until Deitch's original recordings were played on a radio show. In March 2009, How Sad, How Lovely, an album containing 17 songs by Converse, was released. In 2014 a 40 minute documentary film "We Lived Alone" about Converse & her music was made by US film-maker Andrea Kannes. Converse's life and music have served as the inspiration for a play by Howard Fishman, who also produced the album Connie's Piano Songs featuring music written by Converse, but never recorded.
Since then, the legend of Connie Converse has been slowly growing again and many years after she first made those pioneering recordings in Greenwich Village, Connie Converse's voice can be heard once again and her audience is finally listening and appreciating just what a groundbreaking original singer songwriter she really was.
FURTHER READING & LINKS:
Howard Fishman's Article on Connie for The New Yorker Magazine
Connie Converse Wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connie_Converse
BBC News Article on Connie: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29258982
LISTEN TO A SERIES OF PODCAST EPISODES ON CONNIE CONVERSE
Connie Converse Walking In the Dark Spinning On Air
Episode 5 — Connie Converse Let Me Be If I Can (part 1) - Spinning On Air
Episode 6 — Connie Converse Let Me Be If I Can (part 2) - Spinning On Air
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT CONNIE'S LIFE & MUSIC, THEN WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW