Elizabeth “Connie” Converse disappeared in 1974, leaving behind a haunting body of recorded music that would remain virtually unheard for the next 35 years.
Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born in Laconia, New Hampshire in 1924, the middle child of three siblings. She was bookish, the valedictorian her class at Concord High School, and described by most who knew her to be a polymath. She attended Mt. Holyoke College on an academic scholarship beginning in 1942, studied French, and wrote for several campus publications. By 1944 she decided to leave college, at which point the records of her whereabouts are sparse until about 1949, when she made her way to New York City.
There were two major developments during Elizabeth’s time in New York. The first was her procurement of her nickname “Connie.” It is unclear how or why or when exactly, but the name stuck. The second was Connie’s burgeoning interest in playing and writing music, first for guitar and later for piano. No doubt this stemmed from her love of poetry, as many of her earliest songs were poems that she had written and then set to music. The songs became instant hits with her family, and also attracted the attention of animator and amateur recordist Gene Deitch. Beginning around 1954, Connie would make visits to Deitch’s home in Hastings-on-Hudson to record almost 40 songs.
At first listen, Connie’s music seems to keep close company with the female folk artists who were her contemporaries. The knack for plaintive storytelling shares much with Peggy Seeger and Susan Reed. Reed knew Connie’s music well, and performed a set of her songs in 1961 at the Kaufmann Concert Hall in New York. But Connie’s music stands out from that of the American folk revival of the 1950’s. Her fluid and disarmingly intelligent poetry reflects an urban perspective, that of a new New Yorker becoming disenchanted by the bucolic tropes of folk music. She is at once a maverick and a romantic, intellectual and spiritual, a staunch independent and a tender, pining lover.
Over the years Deitch, along with his colleague Bill Bernal, worked to promote Connie’s music, but despite their efforts, the songs remained unheard to all but a few dozen of Connie’s acquaintances. In 1961 Connie tired of New York and left for Ann Arbor, where her brother was a professor at the University of Michigan.
Having dropped out of college seventeen years prior, it came as something of a surprise that, within months of her arrival in Ann Arbor, Connie had implanted herself firmly in the academic community of U-Mich. She began as a secretary at the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution, eventually working her way to Managing Editor and Co-Editor of CRCR’s Journal of Conflict Resolution.
Connie’s work in Ann Arbor left little time for music and, while she still happily played at family gatherings, there is little evidence that she wrote new material. She did, however, continue her attempts to promote her music already extant. Susan Reed, the folk harpist, took an interest in Connie’s work and performed a set of her songs in New York. There were a handful of scores for commercials and some work on a short film. But never the kind of widespread success she had hoped for her music.
Connie became increasingly despondent in the 1970’s, a period she described as her Blue Funk, although her family and friends say they could not detect any outward change in her character. In 1971, she requested an extended leave of absence from CRCR, citing what she saw as her poor performance at work and unspecified medical problems. Her employer responded by organizing a group of Connie’s friends and colleagues to contribute to a pool of money that would allow her to take a six-month sabbatical in England, which she would later describe as one of the only times in her life that she allowed herself to enjoy “unproductive fun.”
In August of 1974, after waiting for the resignation of Richard Nixon, Connie wrote a series of farewell letters to friends and family. She packed up her Volkswagen and disappeared, her whereabouts unknown to this day.
Film maker Andrea Kannes is currently working on a documentary about Connie. More info here: http://connieconversedoc.com/