November 24, 2016


CONNIE CONVERSE'S TIME HAS COME (Howard Fishman , NOVEMBER 21, 2016, The New Yorker)

Phil Converse had moved to the Midwest, and the siblings began a decade-long correspondence that has echoes of the correspondence between the van Gogh brothers in its dedicated practice, its intimacy, and its dynamic of one acting as cheerleader for the other's artistic efforts. Converse was able to express herself in writing to her brother in ways that seemed to elude her in everyday life. "Being a complex and inward personality, I have always found it difficult to make myself known," she wrote him. "I generally conceal my own problems and listen attentively to those of others."

Converse enrolled her brother and Jean, his new wife, as members of her own private Song-of-the-Month Club. Beginning with a 1950 composition called "Down This Road," her first entirely original song, and ending with 1955's "Empty Pocket Waltz," she mailed them roughly three dozen "guitar songs," all self-recorded in her tiny Greenwich Village studio at 23 Grove Street.

The recordings reveal the result of her meticulous study and assimilation of virtually all American vernacular music to that point; either that or--like some sort of literary, New England parallel to Robert Johnson--she had made a deal with the devil. Somehow, Converse had become a master of the acoustic guitar, created a complicated and unique fingerpicking style, developed a keen understanding of harmony and complex chord voicings, and become conversant (bordering on virtuosic) in the stylistic hallmarks of rural blues, country, gospel, folk, pop, jazz, hillbilly, parlor songs, and early jazz.

In songs like "Playboy of the Western World," "Roving Woman," and "The Clover Saloon," she upends and transmutes the traditional format and subject matter of the song form. Each one makes the listener complicit in an unexpected narrative twist: a dashing lover dies ("Playboys die young, this one did too / all worn out making dreams come true"); a young woman sleeps around ("When I stray / away from where I've got to be / someone always takes me home"); a day drinker commits murder ("They're hangin' me tomorrow / in the middle of my thirst"). Converse had found a medium to express her idiosyncratic mind and personality. She communicates a complex and seemingly confusing inner life in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable and opaque. The recordings she made are spare and almost brutally intimate. This is the body of work on which her reputation, long delayed, has been made, though there would be more and different music to follow.

In 1954, Converse was ushered by a friend, guitar in tow, to a semi-regular music salon hosted by the animator and audio enthusiast Gene Deitch in Hastings-on-Hudson. Deitch liked to record his guests, but when Converse walked in he thought twice. She seemed standoffish, a bit arrogant, and apparently unconcerned with physical appearances; at a time when women were being culturally prompted toward glamour, Converse wore no makeup, favored long, shapeless dresses, and tied her hair back in a practical bun--"like she had just come in from milking the cows," according to one attendee. Reluctantly, Converse got out her guitar, Deitch rolled his tape machine, and she proceeded to stun those at the gathering with performances of her songs.

Likely through some connection made at the Deitch gathering, Converse was invited to appear on CBS's "Morning Show," hosted by a young Walter Cronkite. Though a few stills survive of the appearance (a nervous-looking Converse seated to Cronkite's right, her guitar cradled on her lap), almost everything in that era of television was shot live. There is no archival footage. It seemed to be a big moment for Converse. Deitch's son Kim, who was ten at the time, recalls watching the show and thinking, "We'll all say we knew her when." Instead, nothing came of it. Her songs had no contemporary context. Within just a few months, Converse abandoned wholesale her short-form songwriting and began to pursue another kind of composing altogether. She moved to an apartment in Harlem that had a piano, and, seemingly overnight, the style and sophistication of her music radically morphed.

As if to mark the sea change that had occurred, Converse self-recorded an omnibus tape of all her guitar songs to date. Titled "Musicks (Volumes I and II)," the recording project seems to be both a final look back at where she'd come from and a declaration of where she was headed. The tape reel ends with the only extant performance of Converse singing and playing one of her piano compositions, "Vanity of Vanities." An entirely new voice had emerged. Unrequited love, a theme that haunts the narratives of her entire musical catalogue, features prominently in the piano songs, an Ĺ“uvre that would culminate in Converse's final and most ambitious compositional endeavor--a cycle of art songs inspired by the Cassandra myth.

In January, 1961, frustrated by her inability to find an audience for her music, Converse left New York. She was nearing middle age, with no significant professional, artistic, or romantic prospects. Her brother and his wife had made a life ensconced in the heady, liberal milieu surrounding the University of Michigan, and Converse chose Ann Arbor as a place to start over. She volunteered as a political activist, worked on a novel, and took a series of ever more demanding academic jobs that took a toll on her physically and mentally, eventually leading to a breakdown. In August, 1974, one week after her fiftieth birthday, she mailed a series of cryptic notes and letters to family and friends that spoke of a need to make a fresh start somewhere else, and quietly drove away. She was never heard from again.

Posted by at November 24, 2016 4:11 AM