On Connie Converse, considering the lilies
If I have two things to thank for introducing me to the heavenly spirit that is Connie Converse, they are Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithm and The New Yorker.
Last summer, deciding to throw caution and typical career paths to the wind, I packed my bags and flew to Dehradun, India. There I worked for Ankuri, a women’s rights non-profit that teaches high school English. In a foreign country, hundreds of miles from friends, family and any modicum of Midwestern security, I craved a sense of familiarity. Before class on a balmy Monday in August, I let my eyes scan my laptop case, relishing the elements of home my laptop stickers attempt to encapsulate — stickers from my friend’s clothing line, a tantalizing pizza restaurant on Vernor Highway in Detroit (if there’s one thing India lacks, it’s good pizza), The Michigan Daily.
I open my laptop, immediately throw earbuds in and open Spotify. As I’m wont to do, I fall back on music as a coping mechanism for change. By diving into Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist — a personalized mix of music based on user listening habits — I feel like I’m better prepared to embrace new challenges and experiences in the same manner I would embrace new genres and sounds. With it being a Monday, my new playlist is ready for consumption and I am starving.
I hit shuffle to wet my appetite. A few songs roll by — one sadboi moaning into a compression-soaked microphone, one B-side by a Canadian alt group, one ’90s Queen of Rap wringing out syllables like a wet towel.
Then, I hear a muffled male voice some 20 or so feet away from the microphone:
“Well she has one that she hasn’t sung yet.”
Another voice inquires:
Then the real subject, the one behind the mic, the object of this persistent questioning, pushes back on the previous two:
“Well I’d rather not try that, actually. I haven’t tried it enough more to- to do it well.”
Devilishly, another far away female voice proposes a solution to the singer’s apprehension:
“Why don’t you just sing it and we won’t record it?”
However, I know she’s lying. Otherwise the conversation wouldn’t be in my headphones, funneling into my brain. Mischievous, to say the least.
Unbeknownst to her, the musician acquiesces and begins to perform. She clears her throat. A bass note is plucked. Then the first beat of a four beat bar is heard on an acoustic guitar. As a guitarist myself who has plenty of songs he can’t remember, the action is familiar. She’s getting herself started, firing the engine in hopes of heading somewhere. She then interrupts herself for a special announcement:
“This has a biblical text.”
And what comes next could have been handed down to Moses by what my grandma believes to be an old, white-haired, white guy in the sky. The guitar intro screams ’60s folk recordings, probably an old Martin acoustic guitar rendition of an early 20th century folk song. I remember growing up, two or three years old in the townhouse on Starr Road, building cities using Thomas the Tank Engine tracks, Legos and alphabet blocks and listening to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan on my dad’s turntable. Being inculcated with the ’60s folk revival at a very young age, I automatically thought this must be from that era of musicians, gleaming whatever they can from Harry Smith ’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
But as the song winds up, the guitar becomes more intricate. In addition, the voice is beyond anything I’ve ever heard before. It is gentle and soothing like the chime of a wind-up snow globe, yet there’s a fire burning underneath, an urgency to her tone and lyrics that beg the listener to lean in. A minute in, the song kicks into high gear, with elaborate picking patterns, a faster tempo and that voice jumping all over the scales, pontificating on the demure lifestyle of flowers in the valley.
I’m spellbound. I close my Google Doc and immediately pine to know who this elusive folk icon is. Maybe it’s a modern-day contemporary of Joan Baez, distorting the recording to sound lofi and InDiE. The song is “I Have Considered the Lilies” from the album How Sad, How Lovely by Connie Converse. The name alone casts me back to middle school, where I began my trend of always wearing high top Converse sneakers, despite their lack of an arch that made my feet ache constantly.
A quick Google search shows Converse to be a folk musician — my musical era guess was correct— but from earlier than Baez, Dylan and the ’60s folk revival in general. In using one of my 10 precious, free monthly articles to find out more, the essay “Connie Converse’s Time Has Come” by culture writer Howard Fishman in The New Yorker paints her as a leading pioneer in the singer-songwriter movement of the late ’50s. However, few knew who she was until the late 2000s. This confuses me. How can a musician be a pioneer without garnering a certain amount of fame? However, the article quickly informs me Converse walked into obscurity, quitting music in 1961, so the likes of Dylan, Baez and more could run.
There are so many stories of fans wanting to find their idols who don’t want to be found. Luckily, if it was the early ’60s and I was obsessed with Converse as I am now, I wouldn’t have to look very far to meet her. After leaving New York in ’61, Converse moved to Ann Arbor.
Crucial to telling Converse’s story is the acknowledgement that she was a remarkably talented learner — adapting and achieving mastery in anything she set her mind to. Hers is also a story of what-ifs. As someone encountering her story some 50 years later, I read every crossroad Converse encountered like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I want to tell her, “Just stick it out, the folk revival is around the corner! Don’t leave New York just yet!” But history doesn’t afford those privileges.
Born Elizabeth Eaton Converse in 1924, she grew up in Laconia, N.H. and excelled in nearly every field of academic study, eventually earning the title of valedictorian of her high school class. With a full-ride scholarship to Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s liberal arts college in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Converse seemed destined to thrive in higher education.
However, here’s our first what-if juncture. After two years at school, Converse dropped out of Mouth Holyoke and headed to New York City to become a writer and artist. What if she had stayed at Mount Holyoke? Would she have become a famous academic? A professor? No matter, because Converse had her sights set on a life beyond higher education.
Upon her arrival, she found a job as a printer’s assistant, but most of her time was spent refining her skills in various art mediums: essays, poetry, painting, cartooning and, most importantly for her legacy, learning to play guitar. With her Crestwood 404 tape recorder in her apartment at 23 Grove St., she’d record her original songs and compositions. Converse quickly developed a style of playing that takes guitarists decades to craft but was also bonafide Connie Converse, with unique finger-picking patterns and nuanced chord voicings at the forefront of her work.
It’s important to consider the musical landscape Converse was creating in and how apart her compositions were from the typical Greenwich Village fair. Most musicians, especially of the beatnik and folk variety New York was brimming with in the early ’50s, were not writing original songs. In an effort to make political statements, many musicians like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Odetta and more were performing renditions of old work songs and ballads. Converse, on the other hand, was crafting original masterpieces both intricate in lyricism and musicality.
Having described herself as “a complex and inward personality” who “always found it difficult to make myself known” in a letter to her brother, Converse did not go out of her way to gig and play open mics as was expected of musicians at the time. Instead, she sent home recordings of her compositions to her brother and his wife and wrote within the comforts of her own apartment.
In 1954, Bill Bernal, a friend of Converse, brought her to Gene Deitch’s apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. Deitch, a recording hobbyist and cartoonist, would host music salons and recording parties at his studio. However, Converse was reportedly a bit nervous to perform. In an essay about the encounter on his website, Deitch reaffirms how little Converse fit in to the bohemian cultural fabric of ’50s New York. In the ’50s, image was a high indicator of talent and Deitch, describing her as a “plain Jane” with her glasses and practical bun, thought she wouldn’t “fit in with our crowd.”
Another what-if junction. A crossroad in the map of her life. After a bit of coaxing from the crowd, Converse unpacked her guitar, rested her fingers on the strings and began to sing. What if she had gotten too nervous and never played for the crowd? We wouldn’t be here talking about her if Deitch hadn’t recorded her in his apartment that night.
According to Deitch’s essay, whatever the crowd thought of her physical appearance took a backseat to her skill.
“(Converse’s songs) were all-musicianly, beautifully melodic, with seemingly coded lyrics. They completely hypnotized us … They were intensely personal and haunting.”
Following the recording salons at Deitch’s apartment, strings were pulled to get Converse a slot on CBS’s “Morning Show” with Walter Cronkite. Upon reading this in The New Yorker essay, I immediately opened a YouTube tab and searched for the performance. I was disappointed to discover, since almost all shows were shot live during that time, no recordings of the performance exist to our knowledge.
Despite everyone in attendance and watching at home assuming she’d be signed immediately, no phones were ringing at the Converse household. Despondent due to the lack of interest in her guitar songs, Converse turned to her piano, crafting less conventional piano and vocal compositions and pushing her musical chops, including her usage of vocal harmony, to another plane altogether.
And still, no one would listen. When we say people are “before their time,” Converse fits the bill. Her lyrical themes of (unwarranted) contempt towards women and unrequited love, her musical stylings and her overall demeanor would have likely made her a star in the ’60s folk renaissance. However, no one expressed an interest in publishing her music. In 1961, upset by the lack of rightful recognition for her creative efforts, Converse fled her home once again, hurdling down the road towards her brother in Ann Arbor.
I never would have had the opportunity for Converse to grace my Discover Weekly if it weren’t for the efforts of Dan Dzula and David Herman, the founders of Squirrel Thing Records. Established in the late 2000s, Squirrel Thing Records was the primary publisher of Converse’s musical archives. Interviewing Dzula over the phone about Converse, his answers sound as though he’s talked to countless reporters about her music. However, his tone implies he never gets tired of it. We both chuckled, agreeing that’s just Converse’s effect on you.
Dzula first heard Converse while listening to WNYC’s “Spinning on Air” radio show with David Garland in 2004. Garland was interviewing Deitch about his rare John Lee Hooker recordings he had in his archives. On Garland’s request, Deitch played a Converse recording, talked about her for a minute or so, then moved on. Dzula, listening to the show in his car, had the same reaction I had had while in India.
“In 2004 when she was played on ‘Spinning on Air,’ that was her first exposure to radio and I just still consider myself very lucky to have heard it, and I was very moved by it, and it just felt like very important music,” Dzula said. “I remember thinking at the time that, ‘Well this is such amazing music, any day now someone’s going to release the album,’ and that just didn’t happen.”
Four years after Dzula first heard Converse’s recordings, he “summoned the courage” to contact Deitch with the proposal of releasing his recordings. Deitch directed Dzula to Converse’s brother, Phil Converse, a prominent professor of political science and sociology at the University of Michigan and the owner of Converse’s estate. With help from Deitch and Phil, Dzula compiled a series of recordings and founded Squirrel Thing Records for the purpose of releasing the album How Sad, How Lovely in 2009.
In the interview, he said her musical style is unlike what was coming out of New York during the time and that poignant original material, despite many folk singers covering older standards, helps her connect with a modern audience.
“I think it’s very easy for people to see themselves in her, in her story and in her music,” Dzula said. “I think that just has to do with the quality and depth of ideas that she puts forth as a songwriter. 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.”
Dzula’s words resonate with me wholeheartedly. Beyond her guitar technique, which, as a guitarist, are enough to keep me enraptured, Converse’s lyrics are poetry. Her songs grapple with universal concepts with poignant, succinct accuracy. The track “How Sad, How Lovely,” which begins with the line “How sad, how lovely / how short, how sweet / to see that sunset / at the end of the street,” casts me back to my childhood, learning the purpose of a wake at my first funeral — my grandfather’s. Though a somber occasion with tears flowing continuously, loved ones attempted to focus on the joy my grandpa brought into this world instead of dwelling on the sadness of his absence. Converse understood this outlook on life and summarized it perfectly. A sunset doesn’t last for long but it’s lovely while it’s around. While Dzula may not have the same specific memory association, I would be hard pressed to believe he doesn’t see truth in this line.
Despite this apparent connection to her modern fan base, one album of archival recordings does not appease a fan base hungry for more. However, this may soon change. Dzula is currently in talks with Converse’s estate to publish a 5 LP box set featuring recordings of Converse that have yet to see the light of day. If all goes according to Dzula’s plan, the LP set would include “her home recordings … other demos and oddities … Gene Deitch’s own recordings” and more.
Fed up with no one wanting to publish her music, Converse arrived at the University of Michigan, found her brother and set out to make a name for herself in academia. Just as she had done in New York, Converse made her way into an exclusive echelon of people with very little prior knowledge or expertise. In New York, it was the beatniks and music scene. In Ann Arbor, she had to acclimate to an academic environment. In a typical Converse fashion, she exceeded anyone’s expectations of her.
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, many women were relegated to the role of secretary in male-dominated business environments. While Converse acquiesced to this job at first, her aspirations and talents quickly grew out of the position. With very little know-how in the field of political science — one of her brother’s areas of expertise — Converse became a writer and, eventually, the managing editor at the University of Michigan’s Journal of Conflict Resolution in 1963.
Five years after she became managing editor, she published a retrospective piece in the journal, analyzing the common themes of articles published during her tenure and positing her suggestions for the future of the journal. In her introduction, Converse’s eloquent and smart prose gives off the air of someone who has been steeped in political science for years.
“A member of the JCR editorial board recently suggested that the journal's subtitle be changed from ‘a quarterly for research related to war and peace’ to ‘a quarterly for research related to revolution and world development,’ ” Converse wrote. “The suggestion reflects a shift in salience, over the past decade, from the H-bomb to the war in Vietnam. My own proposal for a new subtitle at this point might be ‘a quarterly for research related to the war of all against all and the truce of some with some.’ ”
However, her jobs on campus and her activism eventually wore Converse’s creative and mental spirits down. She reportedly stopped writing music not long after she arrived in Ann Arbor. According to Howard Fishman’s New Yorker essay, she began drinking and smoking heavily. Then, in 1974, while her brother and his family were on summer vacation, she packed up her things and penned a few letters to family and friends, begging them to “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.” After sending the letters, she drove off once again, leaving Ann Arbor behind.
This time, no one knew where she was heading. Her final what-if.
Her brother assumed she committed suicide. Knowing his sister, he thought Converse probably didn’t want to be found if she was still alive and he respected that decision.
To this day, no one knows if Connie Converse is alive or dead.
Howard Fishman’s story of discovering Converse’s album on Squirrel Thing is similar to mine and Dzula’s — all three of us being immediately enraptured upon listening. He first heard her song “Talkin’ Like You” at a party in 2010 and was thrown into a state of utter euphoria by her bluesy finger-picking, her clear-as-day voice and the simple fact that nothing sounds like it, no matter how many comparisons you draw.
“I find her work to be completely original and astoundingly unique,” Fishman said. “I think it’s very original in a timeless way.”
Like the best calls to action, Fishman wanted to know more about Converse than what was on the Squirrel Thing website. He immediately tracked down her living family members, including Converse’s brother, and began to piece together her story. A musician himself, Fishman composed an album based on manuscripts of her later piano and voice compositions. He is also currently in the process of writing a book about her life.
His most measurable creative endeavor, in his effort to keep Converse’s legacy alive, has been his play “A Star Has Burnt My Eye,” which debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The current draft takes the form of a non-fiction dramatic concert, with Fishman narrating her story and utilizing pictures and artwork as well as excerpts from her personal letters and live performances.
“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. “The piece evolved from concerts I was doing of her music with my band and then telling her story inbetween the songs and that grew into the play.”
Similar to Dzula, Fishman admires her ability to accomplish anything she desired, whether it was writing music or editing a political science journal.
“She took seriously everything she did and did a lot of different things in her life,” Fishman said. “I think that she was fully committed to every endeavor that she set her mind to and I have no doubt that the work that she was doing for the journal was exemplary. I’m sure it was above and beyond what anyone expected her to do.”
While the drama and intrigue of her disappearance makes for great TV or film, Fishman said he believes her music should be front and center when discussing Converse.
“It’s sad, but I think that the fact that she disappeared is not the most interesting thing about her story or about her, and I think that it can take away from attention to the music, which is what I feel is her greatest legacy,” Fishman said. “I think she just has that kind of magnetic pull and it pulled me in and it just hasn’t let go yet.”
Throughout her life, Converse displayed a sense of passion that transcends a common desire for fame. She excelled in her academic studies, developed a musical style all her own while being completely self-taught, wrote beautifully haunting lyrics on the momentary joys of life, became the managing editor of a prominent political science journal with little experience and didn’t let people’s impressions of her stand between her and her goals.
Beyond how passionate she was about every path she went down, even more impressive is her astounding courage. Before I left for India last summer, I thought every day about why it was a mistake. What if I cost myself a valuable internship at home? What if my entire life is based on this moment and I choose the wrong path? What if I fail?
Despite a story filled to the brim with what-ifs, Converse knew what she wanted out of life and had the courage to leave everything behind to accomplish it. She left Mount Holyoke for New York, she left New York for Ann Arbor and finally she left Ann Arbor for an unknown destination and did so with unwavering confidence and determination. Converse helped me become self-assured in my decision and make the best of my experience abroad by dedicating myself to my work, no matter what what-ifs come after.
Ultimately, what I can’t shake about Converse’s legacy, beyond her tragic yet inspiring story, is how her music inspires others to create something new and beautiful. Dzula founded an entire record company to publish Converse’s music and make people understand how brilliant she was. Fishman performed concerts of her music, is working on a book about her life and wrote an entire play just to tell the world about Connie Converse and why she deserves recognition and respect.
Though I consider myself a musician and playwright, I’ve always been a piss-poor drawer. I couldn’t color inside the lines if you paid me (and my Kindergarten teacher tried to). But after listening to “I Have Considered the Lilies” multiple times over, a powerful force came over me — one endowed with confidence and a creative spirit. I reached for the nearest pen and a sketchbook that had been gathering dust on my shelf; its pages stuck together a bit. I googled one of the few photos of Converse’s performance on CBS’s “Morning Show,” the segment that many assumed would rocket her to stardom and found one that piqued my interest — her expression intent and her fingers resting gingerly on the neck of the guitar. I spent an hour and a half that day, outlining her face with its sharp cheekbones, her hair, poised and sculpted to her standards, and her guitar resting between her arms. While the sketch certainly isn’t ending up in the MoMA anytime soon, Converse’s music, like it did to Dzula and Fishman, gave me the same passion and courage she had to step out of my comfort zone and create.
Thank you, Connie Converse, for considering the lilies when the whole world was “all against all.”