I feel like I’m a couple months late to the scene, but without a doubt I’ve found one of my favorite albums of 2009, and one of the best of the past decade, probably more: How Sad, How Lovely, by Connie Converse, a set of bold, quirky, quiet, sophisticated, playful, delightful, intricately rhymed, heartbreaking songs recorded half a century ago and only released this spring.
Converse lived in the Village in the 50s and performed mostly for her friends. She never released a record and, apparently frustrated by that fact, left the city around 1960 for Michigan, where she spent the next years editing academic journals. In 1974, at age 50, she packed her belongings in an old Volkswagon bus, left good-bye letters for family, locked up a filing cabinet of poems and type-script journal entries, and then drove away, never to be heard from again.
I heard the song “Father Neptune” on the WFMU show Inner Ear Detour with David last Friday. It stopped me cold by the third line. Before the song was over I’d purchased a download of the album and shut off the radio. Before long I was scouring the Web to find out what I could about this enigmatic singer.
The best way to hear her story is to listen to the episode of WNYC’s “Spinning on Air” David Garland devoted to her earlier this year. Garland had unwittingly been part of a fifty-year quest to find Converse an audience when, a few years ago, the cartoonist and animator Gene Deitch played a home recording of Converse on Garland’s show. He had been friends with her in the Village in the 50s and had recorded a handful of her original compositions. Converse had moved to the city after dropping out of Mount Holyoke, hoping to make her way as a songwriter and performer. Her songs — somewhere between the American songbook of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway showtunes, and what would later be termed singer-songwriter — were apparently too hard to pin down for mainstream record companies. Listening to these recordings, made by Deitch fifty years ago, you can hear the progenitor of Joanna Newsom, Larkin Grimm, and Leslie Feist, but you also hear some of her contemporaries — Shirley Collins, say, or a few years later Vashti Bunyan — and wonder how these songs have remained hidden for so long.
When Deitch played Converse on Garland’s show, they inspired listeners Daniel Dzula and David Herman to launch Lau derette Records simply to put out a CD of those old tape recordings. Lau derette is currently working on an album of other artists covering Converse’s songs. (Wish list, wish list! One can only hope Sam Amidon, Will Oldham, Bill Callahan, and Angel Deradoorian may be on there.) They’ve also planned a tribute show at Joe’s Pub for September 5, what would have been Converse’s 85th birthday.
I’d like to write more about these songs once I’ve had more than a week for them to settle into my brain. It’s a serious body of work that deserves thoughtful consideration and a much, much larger audience than she’s yet enjoyed. Maybe you’ll be part of it.
Stream some of Connie Converse’s songs here.