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Roving Woman: Searching for America's First Singer-Songwriter

“​​Like life, like a smile, like the fall of a leaf / How sad, how lovely, how brief”

Connie Converse recorded those lyrics in a friend’s kitchen in 1954. Twenty years later in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she would pack up her Volkswagen Bug and drive away from home, never to be seen again. It would take another 30 years for her recordings to finally be unearthed.

But let’s start at the beginning - 1924. Connie, then known as Elizabeth, was born into a strict Baptist family in Concord, New Hampshire. Her father led the state chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, which fought to enforce prohibition laws. Despite this staunch upbringing, the family was close-knit, and her mother encouraged Converse’s creative pursuits, hosting “Shakespeare nights” and allowing her to paint life-size murals on the walls of their home.

Converse was one of those people who just seemed to be good at everything. Her family described her as a polymath and a genius, and she picked up hobbies constantly. Poetry, art, music, and academics all seemed to come effortlessly for her. She graduated high school as valedictorian and earned a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. At 18, her life was going perfectly according to plan.

But Converse was also restless, and after two years of college, she decided to drop out and move to New York City. It seems like the move was equal parts a creative pursuit and an act of rebellion against her strict religious upbringing. Her parents, of course, were devastated. Once in the city, she picked up a few new traits - the nickname Connie, a taste for cigarettes and alcohol, and a knack for the guitar.

Between her shifts working for a printing house and freelancing as a political essayist, Converse would write songs. She would combine elements of folk music and the Baptist church songs of her childhood to create simple melodies that stood in stark contrast to her witty, deeply personal lyrics.

Soon enough, she was performing for small groups of friends, and sending tapes of herself back home to her family - although her parents never supported her music career, and her father allegedly died without hearing a single one of her songs.

One of her friends at this time was Gene Deitch, a graphic artist and connoisseur of rare or bootlegged recordings. He became one of her biggest champions, insisting that she build a catalog of her music, and even arranging a performance for her on The Morning Show with Walter Cronkite.

And it went nowhere. Nothing seemed to stick.

Nobody was lining up to hear a woman sing about dead lovers and barroom brawls. This was a time when it was still frowned upon for a woman to leave the house without lipstick on, and even the beatniks in Greenwich Village were judgemental towards this plain, bespectacled woman who made no effort to impress them with anything but her music.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Converse was notoriously private, even towards her friends. She’d answer personal questions with a simple “yes” or “no,” and she never spoke of any intimate or romantic relationships, despite how heavily they feature in her lyrics. Her brother speculated that she might have been a lesbian, but there’s very little record one way or the other.

Instead of opening herself up to the people around her, Converse poured all of that emotion into her music. She wrote of lost love, of her struggle to fit into the traditional mold of femininity, and of her own feelings of isolation - the pain of loneliness, as well as the freedom it afforded her. Writing seemed to be the only outlet she had for these feelings, and it grew increasingly important for her.

Despite this, Converse did very little to actually promote her work. For all of her time in New York, she declined to hire an agent or even look into booking any performances outside of coffee shops or friends’ homes. It seemed as if she wanted the music to speak for itself because she was unable to. Or maybe she was used to things falling into place, the way they had always seemed to do for her before.

But even if she had done everything in her power to promote her music, it’s unlikely that she would have been able to find much of an audience. This was in the early 1950s, when folk music was heavily male-dominated, and mainly made up of political ballads and old standards. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were still over a decade away from the beginning of their musical careers, and the term singer-songwriter had yet to be coined. There was just no place for Converse’s music. It’s romantic to say that she was simply ahead of her time, but the reality of it was crushing.

By 1961, she had reached a breaking point. After 10 years in New York, she was at a standstill in her career. It was becoming increasingly obvious that she just wasn’t cut out for the industry. Finally, she moved out of the city and settled in Michigan, close to where her brother was living.

There, Converse got an office job writing for a political journal. She was interested in the work, but it was far from the career she’d envisioned for herself. She started smoking and drinking more heavily around this time, and eventually she gave up on writing music altogether. Over the next 10 years, she spiraled deeper into depression. It reached a critical point in 1973, when she learned that the journal she worked for had been sold without her knowledge. Around the same time, she was told that she needed to undergo a hysterectomy, making her unable to have children. It seemed like her entire life, every plan she had made for her future was suddenly crumbling around her.

Converse was devastated, and her friends and family were worried. They did their best to cheer her up, or at least distract her from the bad news, but nothing seemed to work. In fact, some of their efforts just seemed to make her mood worse.

Less than a year later, Converse was gone. She left behind a few letters for the people closest to her, asking them not to go looking for her. In a note to her brother, she begged "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." He respected her final wish.

For decades, that was the end of Connie Converse’s story. An unknown fate for a woman who moved through the world largely unknown. That was until 2004, when Gene Deitch appeared on a New York radio show and happened to play one of his old tapes - a recording of Converse’s song “One by One.” Something about the simple, sad song resonated with listeners, and suddenly there was a demand for more of her recordings. 43 years after Converse had given up on music, her audience had finally found her.

Art by Lyvie Scott

It’s hard to describe Converse’s music to someone who hasn’t heard it before, but there is something inherently captivating about it. It’s full of contradictions. Converse’s voice has a tense 1950s formality to it, which only makes the intimacy and humor in her lyrics more striking, like the warmth of a campfire cutting through cold air. The songs feel at once rustic and elegant. They can be heartbreakingly sad, like the aforementioned “One by One,” but others are incredibly witty and even subversive, like “Roving Woman” which pokes fun at the expectations of women, singing about how lucky she is to be “saved” from drinking and gambling by a man trying to take her home.

The theme of isolation comes up a lot in Converse’s music, and it’s difficult not to look at that through the lens of her disappearance. In songs like “We Lived Alone” and “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)” she sings about the freedom of living away from the rest of the world, describing isolated homes with such fondness and warmth that it’s easy to picture them as if you were really there. Even then, there’s a longing for company, or at least a constant awareness that she’s going without it. It’s another contradiction, the desire for companionship against the peace of isolation.

Converse’s songs have such a strong sense of intimacy, not just because of her lyrics, but also the way that they were recorded. Converse never released any music commercially, so the only existing versions of her songs are the demos that she recorded for herself and her friends. It gives everything a refreshingly casual air. There’s so much life contained in each song. You can hear the embarrassed smile in her voice when she stumbles over a lyric in “Playboy of the Western World,” and listen to her banter with her friends as they promise they’re not recording her unrehearsed version of “I Have Considered the Lilies.” In one version of “Roving Woman” (heard at 9:43 in this radio show), a cat wanders up behind her and starts meowing along with the song.

It’s strange to feel so close to somebody whose life still remains mostly a mystery. It’s even stranger to know that no matter how much you pour over her recordings, her letters, the few remaining photographs of her, that her mystery may never be solved.

If Connie were alive today, she would be 96 years old. Maybe she is. Maybe she found a home between two tall mountains, the same one that she imagined running off to when she was still living in New York. Maybe she got to live a long, happy life there on her own, far away from the world that confused and frustrated her so much. Or maybe she drove her Volkswagen off a bridge back in 1974. It’s not for us to know. Whatever became of her, I hope that she somehow understood that one day, her legacy would be recognized.

Finally, her life is being celebrated. However sad, however lovely, however brief.

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