The mysterious story of Connie Converse, the singer-songwriter who vanished
The singer-songwriter Connie Converse has been described by fans as a precursor to Bob Dylan. But when she made music in New York City in the early to mid-1950s, no one paid much attention. So she left the music scene to start a new life. Then one day in 1974, Converse and her music disappeared.
Decades later, in 2009, a few early recordings were released for the first time and suddenly Connie Converse had an audience. Ever since, those fans have been working to share her music and story with the world. One of them, author and musician Howard Fishman, published a comprehensive biography of Converse in May titled To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse. And now a new album containing 32 songs will be released Aug. 11. It's a recording Converse made herself, at home in 1956. She called it Musicks. Fishman joined NPR's Eyder Peralta to talk about the enigmatic singer and composer. Hear the complete radio story above.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eyder Peralta: For those of us who don't know her, who is Connie Converse?
Howard Fishman: She was a trailblazing pioneering music maker in the 1950s, whose music has only recently been discovered and given the recognition it deserves. She grew up in New Hampshire, went to college at Mount Holyoke, dropped out, and moved to New York City to pursue being a writer. After being there for a few years, Converse began delving into making music at a time when the music she made really had no context. Although she had a fanbase among people that heard her in living rooms and in salon settings, she was never able to break through commercially because record company executives didn't feel like there was any way to market her music. Then in 1961, convinced that the music industry was not going to be able to do anything with her after all, she left New York and moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to start a new life.
At some point she disappears. So we know nothing about her after that?
Right. After deciding that music maybe wasn't the avenue that was going to be open for her, she left and for the next decade worked as a social justice champion, working in conflict resolution, working against police brutality. And then she disappeared completely in 1974. She wrote letters to family and friends saying that she was going to start a new life somewhere and not to come looking for her, and she has never been heard from again.
How did you first encounter her music?
I first heard a Connie Converse song at a holiday party in 2010. It was called "Talking Like You." When I heard it, I had the feeling that I had heard the song all my life and also that I had never heard it before. And the combination of those two feelings gave me goosebumps and started me down the rabbit hole that led to the book that I released a few months ago.
This new album is called Musicks. It's the second album of her work that's been released. Tell us about it.
She made it in 1956. And what's exciting about this album is that it's the album Connie Converse wanted to be made. She recorded it herself, she sequenced it herself, and it represents her vision.
The previous Converse album, which is called How Sad, How Lovely, released in 2009, is a compilation of 1950s-era Converse songs and recordings, some of which were recorded by her, but most of which were recorded by somebody else. It was assembled for the purpose of introducing her to a listening audience for the first time. There were only 16 tracks. So this new album, with 32 tracks, is a major bump in what is known about Connie Converse and what has been commercially available until now.
One track from the new album is a song about how maybe, inevitably, we all end up alone. It's called "One by One," and it's haunting because she disappears in real life. I live in Mexico, which is a place where more than 100,000 people are reported missing. And what you learn in this song is that disappearance is more heartbreaking than death because it leaves people in a kind of purgatory. They're neither dead or alive.
I also feel that, in a way, she's a ghost. It's like her entire life was spent as an invisible woman who was able to see the future by giving us these gifts and thinking and writing and composing in ways that are so common to us today, but were not at all common in the 1950s. And then I think of how, at age 50, she decided the world doesn't want me and I don't want it. And she chose to go. We don't know what happened to her. Her body was never found. Her car was never found.
Do you have a song from the album that you would like to point us to?
Another song not released until now is "When I Go Traveling." What I love about this song is thinking about Connie Converse as a traveler. She had wanderlust throughout her life and she took far-flung road trips, going as far as cross-country in a car in the late '40s, at a time when people weren't really doing that just for the hell of it. And then coming back by Greyhound, going through the southwest, down into Mexico, up through the deep South. For a young woman in her 20s from New Hampshire to be having those kinds of adventures was pretty unusual at the time.
What do you think Connie would think of the album being released right now?
That's interesting, because the notes on the album say that it's a private recording for her brother and sister-in-law. It's presumptuous of me to say anything about what Connie Converse would have thought, but I believe that she felt strongly in her music, that she knew that it was good and important, and I think that she wanted posterity to have it.
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