May 16, 2021 • 25M

Connie Converse, doubt, and the joy of death

“These reels are strewn with minor mishaps. On the other hand, they’re not so bad.”

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This essay was originally published as “How Sad, How Lovely,” in StoryQuarterly 50. If you enjoy the work, please consider supporting LOST ART with a paid subscription.

photograph courtesy Elizabeth Converse / The Estate of Elizabeth Converse / Squirrel Thing Recordings

1. The Song

The music subscription service, Spotify, algorithmically generates a thirty-song playlist for its listeners each Monday based on their individual musical preferences. I was driving to school on a bright, snowless winter morning listening to mine. The traffic app Waze directed me down an industrial side street to avoid a snarl on Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn. It was an hour when technology anticipated my needs. That’s when I first heard Connie Converse.

It’s an old recording, staticky and quiet. How ‘bout ‘Two Tall Mountains,’ a man suggests off-mic. You can’t miss with that. Then a woman’s voice opens up, primly old-fashioned in the Appalachian folk tradition, but with more weight in the hull, like Jean Ritchie after a long night. Two minutes and thirty seconds later, I pressed repeat, and then again, and I listened to the same song until I merged onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. 

In between two tall mountains

there’s a place they call Lonesome

Don’t see why they call it Lonesome

I’m never lonesome when I go there

Imagine moving to Lonesome so you could stop feeling it. I wasn’t lonesome, either, but in a way that was tenuous enough it bore noting, the kind one might sing about. That evening, when I returned from school, I would roast a Puerto Rican-style pork shoulder for a group of friends and a man of whom I was growing fonder every day. But that was simply social. There was another ache that felt, in some ways, more gnawing and more urgent than the desire to belong among others. It’s an artist’s ache, one of effort and uncertainty, and of the hope the work itself — without acknowledgment or acclaim — will be enough to sustain you. It’s an ache I was only able to identify that morning because I heard it in the breaths Connie takes between the lines.

2. The Story

For nearly a decade, Connie sang into a Crestwood 404 tape recorder in her apartment on Grove Street, and in her pal’s kitchen in Hastings-on-Hudson, waiting for something to hit; then when it did, it didn’t, really. Her big break on Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Morning Show” inspired the same reception as playing in her friend’s living room. That was lovely, Connie, thank you. She’d given up her scholarship at Mount Holyoke for this.

It was 1961. She guessed it was time to quit New York. She packed her coffee percolator and cardigans and unpacked in Ann Arbor. She did what people do when the give up on one life and commit to another, one near a brother and sister-in-law with a nephew to dote on. She reassembled. She took a job at The Journal of Conflict Resolution, and after work, in the new living rooms of new friends, she laid her guitar across her lap and warbled through arrangements of Shakespearean sonnets. She kept up the old ways, smoking a little and drinking a lot, but she stopped writing her own songs. At night, she stirred in her cotton bedsheets, and once she stopped stirring, maybe realized it was not entirely honest to say she did not feel lonesome. Was that the word for it? It was some longing. None of it felt right, and a six-month sabbatical to England funded by all those dear new friends couldn’t make it so. She returned to Michigan, and everyone saw the same shadows in her eyes. Had she ever been in love, they wondered, or wanted a baby of her own? The only thing you could get out of her was what she sang, they said. It was too late anyhow. A doctor ordered her uterus out. 

It was 1974. She guessed it was time to quit Ann Arbor. She packed her cardigans and her coffee percolator, and she may never have unpacked them. She wrote letters saying so long: “Human society fascinates me & awes me & fills me with grief & joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it.” She dropped a stack of envelopes in the mailbox, then waved goodbye from the window of her VW Beetle.

3. Love & Labor

Swallows have built a nest in the space between the window ledge near my writing desk and the air-conditioning unit that hangs from it. They are so close, they sound as if they are inside working beside me. The birdsong outshines the baby-sounds from downstairs and the mother who coos alongside her. I wonder whether it is time to quit New York. Life is easier other places, people always say.

I thought easier meant better until this past year, when I watched my favorite couple shuck two dozen oysters. It was Christmas Eve, and the feast had seven fishes. The husband spooned caviar onto tiny homemade blinis and laid chives across the tops like artful pickup sticks. The wife, my best friend, stood over a paella pan the size of a gong, heavy with clams, squid ink, saffron. The husband hauled more champagne up from the basement. It was all so much work. But that’s what makes it special, my friend later explained. I held my champagne flute to the light. It was the prettiest color — a pale, warm pink, blushing with gold. I would like this to to be the color of my next wedding dress, I said.

But why stop writing songs? Connie’s nephew wondered aloud to an interviewer. When did the work stop beings its own reward, or had it ever been, really? She decided she wasn’t going to make it, her brother said, and in many ways that really hurt her. If only she had made it, the thinking seems to go, maybe then her story would have ended differently. Only what if she had, and then it hadn’t?

4. We’ve Been Trying to Be Happy Alone Since Forever, Haven’t We?

We lived alone, my house and I

We had the earth, we had the sky.

I had a lamp against the dark,

and I was happy as a lark.

I had a stove and a window-screen,

I had a table painted green.

Sat on a chair with a broken back,

wearing a pretty potato sack.

I had a rug, upon the floor, 

and roses grew around my door.

I had a job; my wants were few.

They were until I wanted you.

And when I set my eyes on you,

nothing else would do, nothing else would do. 

5. The Theories

Her new life, her brother Phil thinks, began and ended when Connie’s car sailed off a bridge into a river west of Michigan. There was no evidence to serve as punctuation to her story — no waterlogged body, no car lifted by crane draining river water from its seams.

Phil tried to track her down, or at least began to. But the private investigator he hired reminded him, before getting to work, People have a right to disappear. There was no search party after all.

Picture this: a woman gunning it, no longer gravity-bound, into the unknown. Compare the rebel rally cry to Connie soldiering on in a midwestern office — using the mimeograph machine, typewriter clacking, rolling her desk chair to the file cabinet across a gray rug. Imagine a life in which her disappointments were so numerous they became indistinct. She could not put her finger where it hurt, could not say I wish I’d had a baby or A record deal would have been nice. All the potential was together in a jumble, like a necklace knotted at the bottom of a pocketbook. 

6. The Producers, The Radio Hosts, The Critics

In 2004, producer and animator Gene Deitch sat behind a microphone at the WNYC show, “Spinning on Air,” sharing some of his rare live recordings of Pete Seeger. He had carried with him from Prague a few old odds-and-ends he thought might interest host and musical historian, David Garland. More than forty years after she quit music in New York, Connie was about to get her first radio play. 

A couple of guys in Brooklyn heard the show. Entranced, David Herman and Dan Dzula set about collecting Connie’s recordings from Deitch and Connie’s brother, Phil, who had long kept the tapes she mailed him from New York in 1956 in a filing cabinet in his Ann Arbor home. She had enclosed a card with Musicks Volumes I and II. “These reels are strewn with minor mishaps,” she wrote. “On the other hand, they’re not so bad.” Connie Converse’s 17-song album, How Sad, How Lovely, was released in March 2009.

“They are a most peculiar bunch of songs,” Robert Forster wrote in Australia’s The Monthly. “Women weren’t writing these kinds of songs in the 1950s. They weren’t writing songs so desperate or pure of feeling, or so flippant and wild.” Eerily contemporary, David Herman said.

Both Deitch and Garland have suggested that before Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, Connie was the first to nudge folk music from dust bowl ballads and protest songs into the singer-songwriter’s sphere — she confided in her listener. She sings about brawny, tan sailors, about the happiness of empty pockets, about afternoon in saloons playing poker until someone finally takes her home.

“What’s known of Converse’s life story only makes the songs, which are often meditations on the lives of solitary or independent women, more haunting,” Emma Goldhammer wrote on The Paris Review’s website.

When Connie’s album was finally released, the talk was full of unanimous praise and certainty, but there was one piece missing. She had such promise and such ability, Deitch said, but she hadn’t put it together somehow. What might have somehow required? The uncomfortable, perhaps — playing publicly in Village coffeehouses or ditching the schoolmarm glasses. But somehow may have required the impossible. Maybe if she’d arrived with her guitar on Grove Street ten years later, it would have all worked out. But what would “working out” even mean? In any case, now that Connie’s finally had her big break and is, most likely, at the bottom of a river, we can all finally agree: These songs are really good. 

7. My Wants Were Few (And Yet)

When I was twenty-seven, I married the man I loved. A few months later, I had a new job writing Oprah-inspired life advice for a women’s website. Since, being twenty-seven, I did not have a terrific volume of wisdom to offer, I researched solutions for the problems I wanted solved in my own life: How to become a morning person, how to create meaningful daily rituals, how to be the heroine of your own life, whatever that means. Each story took about two or three hours, and I generally wrote them from my then-favorite coffee shop down the street, where I sat by the window and watched traffic and dog walkers when I couldn’t think of the right word. The pay was good — enough that I could buy organic milk for the first time in my life without thinking of it — and after I filed my story, I could turn to my own writing. 

My personal blog, which had gotten me the job, was Oprah-meets-Martha Stewart, on which I used recipes, say, for lentil soup or quinoa salad, to reflect on my emotional life. Put more plainly, I was finding adulthood rather tedious and sad and difficult, at a time when very few sad or difficult things had ever happened to me. But in the morning the light cast long, diffuse beams across the wood floorboards of the living room in a way I found uplifting, and I could eat a nice salad for lunch. Perhaps if I paid closer attention to these things, I thought, I would brighten inside. Toss well, and serve immediately. Is that all there is?

I went to see a therapist. It was not my first time, but at least in high school it had made more sense. She had a basement office on 9th Street near Prospect Park where she folded her long dancer’s body in a large black chair. I liked the delicate silver necklaces that glinted at her collarbone, the soft, urging quality of her voice, the tea she drank out of a lopsided earthenware mug made by someone’s hands. I don’t understand, I told her. I have everything I ever wanted.

I saw Jill for six years, following her across the East River to an office near Union Square where we could hear protests march down Broadway during our sessions. She replaced an ugly leather couch with a smart gray one. She pointed one clock at me and one at her. I kept being promoted, until I no longer wrote from the coffee shop in Park Slope but a cubicle on 40th Street near Times Square. I tried, and failed, to get pregnant. My therapist went half-time in the summers. She adopted one baby, then two. How is this for you? she’d ask, and I’d bring her homemade granola or a onesie or branches of winterberry at Christmas, because how it was was bittersweet. 

At our last session, I was thirty-three, and a number of more difficult and sad things had happened to me. I had an ex-husband, a dead mother, and a $22,000 student loan. But I no longer felt I needed to sit in that office on East 11th Street. Some time after that, I stopped taking two little pills — a pink one and a while one — the same ones I had swallowed since high school. A doctor had challenged the continued regimen. Might you be attributing to these pills work you’ve actually done yourself? he asked. A valid point, I thought.

8. The Scientists

In studying people who have suffered terrific blows, psychologists have discovered when the worst thing happens, it can actually be good for a person. Of those who lose someone they love, fully 70 to 80 percent report finding benefit to the experience. Often, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. A woman who survived a traumatic plane crash told researchers, “When I got home, the sky was brighter. I paid attention to the texture of sidewalks. It was like being in a movie.”

In the months following my mother’s death, I thought about writing a book called something like, The Joy of Death. This may have been my own unique expression of the denial stage, but it seemed to me there was a stirring beauty in what I then felt as my duty to enjoy life — once for myself, and again for a woman who could not. It was an imperative for pleasure. 

Now, I sit at my desk by the window, the nearby birds babbling, and when I can’t think of the right word, I look down at the traffic and the yellow lab who suns himself on the sidewalk across the street. I am coming to realize I will do this anywhere, in a craftsman-style bungalow in Los Angeles or in a creaky house in the Massachusetts’s hill towns, even here, in Brooklyn, where everything is so hard, they say. But it’s not so bad. I go back to tapping at the keys. Sometimes I can hear the man I am falling in love with as he sings country songs and washes the dishes in the next room, but more often than not, I am alone, happy as a lark. What if it all works out? I keep saying to myself.

9. Alternate Theory

Connie puts it together somehow. She hears her voice inscribed onto vinyl, then listens to it drift, disembodied, out of the dashboard on her way to buy milk. The sound is not at all how she remembers it. It’s hollow, somehow. She performs in cities on the prairie, then on both coasts, always in a pool of spotlight. Her fingers keep their calluses and the audience leans in, quiet. She knows it is supposed to feel good, she knows this. Someone who loves her waits in the dark of a hotel room. Returning to them, she washes off her makeup, steps out of her skirt, and unbuttons her blouse. She slips into bed, her cheek at the hollow of an underarm, and her sweetheart stirs, comforted by her sigh, close at last. But Connie still feels that same ache, the emptiness inside her, the distance between mountains. 

I am indebted to research and reporting about Connie Converse by others, including the documentary, We Lived Alone, graciously shared by director Andrea Kannes and “The Story of Connie Converse,” by Cord Jefferson published in The Awl. Connie Converse lyrics reprinted in StoryQuarterly with permission from Squirrel Things Recordings. Audio production by Laurie Wheeler.

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