The Greenwich Village of the 1950s was 185 acres packed dense with the beats, bohemians and artists whose names are now legendary—Cage, Pollock, Motherwell, Kerouac—laying the groundwork for a folk scene that would explode in the coming decade, largely thanks to a young Bob Dylan.
But Dylan wasn’t among the first singer-songwriters to flock to the Village. A young woman, fiercely introverted and uniquely talented, named Connie Converse preceded him by more than five years. Connie had been born in New Hampshire in 1924, a time that now may seem improbably far away, though plenty of her contemporaries are still with us. Among them, animator and cartoonist Gene Deitch (underground comics fans may also recognize him as the father of legend Kim Deitch), now 93.
Gene was a friend of Connie’s—we’ll learn more about her in a moment—but he’s an important figure in this story, as he was the one who invited Connie to record one day in his kitchen. Those amateur recordings (along with a single TV appearance on CBS, booked at his urging) are one of the only tangible connections we still have to Connie.
By most accounts, Connie’s upbringing was stable, if perhaps a bit stifling. Her father was a minister and her mother musical. Connie was brought up Baptist (and a strict one, as the children of a New England minister might be expected to be) and was the valedictorian of her high school. A scholarship to Mount Holyoke College soon followed, but Connie could only stay so long. While the reasons why she left school have been lost to history (if they were ever even known to anyone beyond Connie), this is the first time Connie walked away from something, but it wouldn’t be the last.
She moved to New York and settled in with a group of friends who would encourage her musical talents, asking her to play often at parties and gatherings. It was here she likely first caught the ear of amateur recording engineer, Gene. Her days were spent working administrative jobs to pay the rent on her place in the Village.
In the following years, Connie kept playing, kept trying, but success eluded her. The folk scene explosion happening around her didn’t carry her. She grew tired, discouraged and restless. It was time to leave again.
In 1961, Connie made the move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town where her brother taught. She still played parties, but her focus shifted to her career. She’d become the editor of The Journal of Conflict Resolution, a well-regarded and peer-reviewed academic journal. She seemed content, for a while.
In 1973, with news she’d need a hysterectomy and still reeling from her publication being sold without her knowledge, Connie was in a bad place. Friends scraped together money to send her on a vacation to England but it did little to stanch her sadness.
In 1974, Connie wrote a series of letters to her family and friends explaining that she wanted to begin fresh somewhere new. One passage read:
“Human society fascinates me & awes me & fills me with grief & joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it.”
In late summer of that year, she reportedly packed all her belongings in her Volkswagen and left for the last time. She was never seen again.
In her short time in a small spotlight, Connie Converse’s music touched many. It wouldn’t be until 2004, again thanks to her supporter Gene Deitch, that her music would be heard by a wider audience. In 2015, 18 of those recordings Deitch made long ago were released on LP as the album, How Sad, How Lovely.
On one of those tracks, “We Lived Alone,” Connie sang:
We lived alone, my house and I.
We had the earth; we had the sky.
I had a lamp against the dark,
and I was happy as a lark.
I had a stove and a window-screen;
I had a table painted green.
Sat on a chair with a broken back,
wearing a pretty potato sack.
I had a rug upon the floor,
and roses grew around my door.
I had a job; my wants were few.
They were, until I wanted you.
I choose to think Connie didn’t meet a bad end. I hope, after years of disappointment and feigned contentment, that she just found a want to chase, and caught it.