Wearing a Pretty Potato Sack: The Career and Disappearance of Connie Converse.
Illustration by Gabriele Villanueva
The intellectually unchallenged and ever mysterious Connie Converse seems to be deeply loved by a lucky few who have had the opportunity to listen to her few recordings. Still enigmatic to many, and purposefully so it seems, her songs explore freedoms of all kinds. Freedom of sexuality, freedom from society and freedom of emotion. Just as mysteriously she lived, so too she mysteriously disappeared. After continually never finding some definition of success she wrote a series of goodbye letters and took off into the sunset in her VW beetle.
Elizabeth Converse was born to a religious and musical family. She always scored high grades in school and dominated the stage at her high school graduation with awards and even a scholarship to a women’s liberal arts school for writing. After two years she dropped out, much to the dismay of her family, and moved to New York City where she then became Connie. She then started smoking tobacco and drinking as a form of protest against the way she was raised. Her first recording in 1950 was also her first totally original song “Down this Road”. After her move she began to write original songs every month to send to her brother and his wife who then lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. These songs were written and recorded alone in her New York City flat until 1954.
Currently regarded as the first singer-songwriter, her simple music was actually a complex blend of blues, country, folk, jazz and so much more. Her ballads are exciting, some of which end with a surprise death. She sang a love song to the plants in her garden as they change through the seasons. She sang a daydream about living alone with her home, where she sits in a broken chair wearing a “pretty potato sack”. She sang of sexual promiscuity. She sang of sadness and depression. Her endearing imperfect recordings are tearfully honest and show a sincerity not known for the time. During the era of doo-wops and loud jazz, fur coats and pearl necklaces she existed on the outskirts of the NYC music scene, only ever playing a couple life performances in front of an audience. The lyricism of her songs are delicate, contemplative and really display her profound intelligence.
Connie Converse seems to have lived through her own private emotions in her own private world. She never really pursued any romantic relationships that we know of, and her life is veiled with whispers of unconfirmed lesbianism. She never spoke much about herself, preferring to remain private and outside of the limelight. She was never drenched in fur nor did she wear the sexy pencil skirts of the time. She preferred long shapeless skirts and her hair tied back out of the way. In 1954 she met Greenwich Village Beatnik Gene Deitch who hosted recording parties for local musicians. When Converse walked into the room with her guitar she was described by one attendee as looking “like she had just come in from milking the cows.” Once she began singing, the crowd was in awe of her gentle power. Deitch later that same year got her a timeslot on CBS with a young Walter Cronkite where she nervously performed. Many people predicted she would make it big and expected to be able to brag about seeing her before her fame.
But She never reached stardom. In 1961, after about a decade of living in New York, she put that life behind her and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to be with her brother. She moved out of Greenwich Village the same year Bob Dylan moved in. In Michigan things began to look up, she got a job writing for The Journal of Conflict and Resolution and became more involved in politics. She protested with her pen as well as in the streets, but still never felt quite fulfilled. In 1972 the journal was sold and moved to Yale without her knowing, which caused a major spike in her depression. Her loved ones raised the money for a six month trip to England, but to no avail. Shortly after returning her mother convinced her to accompany her to Alaska. Whatever when wrong on that trip, probably a conflict of how differently the two women lived their lives, she returned even more disillusioned.
In 1974 after receiving news from a doctor that she needed a hysterectomy, and upon turning 50 year old, she wrote a series of letters to friends and family discussing the need to start fresh again. One day she packed up her Volkswagen Beetle she drove away never to be heard from again. Her brother believes she drove her car into the ocean or a lake to commit suicide.
Fast forwarding to 2004, music historian David Garland played one of Deitch’s recordings on his radio show. Two people who happened to be listening decided they needed more. They contacted her family and Deitch and compiled her recordings into the 2009 album How Sad, How Lonely, released by Squirrel Thing Records in New York City. Featuring 18 songs recorded by either herself or Deitch, she finally began to be celebrated for the artist she truly was, despite the attitudes of her time. Now it’s up to us to continue her legacy as a brilliant songwriter and one of the most sincere musicians of the 20th century.