Before there was Bob Dylan, there was Connie Converse. Born on August 3, 1924, in Laconia, NH to a father who was a minister and a mother who ran a stern religious household, Converse shed the rules of her upbringing once she reached adulthood. After dropping out of Mount Holyoke College, Converse moved to New York City where she took up drinking, smoking, and writing songs, much to the dismay of her parents.
A folk pioneer often compared to, but unlike Bob Dylan, Converse was not interested in composing protest songs or playing conventional gigs even though the folk scene was dominated by political songs during the time. She did, however, write and sing songs about arguing lovers, loneliness, and promiscuity that were hauntingly beautiful. By the time Bob Dylan emerged to eventual preeminence, Connie Converse had disappeared under a cloud of mystery.
In 1954, the singer-songwriter appeared on CBS’s Morning Show strumming her guitar and singing her songs while sitting next to Walter Cronkite. The television appearance yielded little interest from the public and according to audio engineer Gene Deitch, she was considered too hard to sell at that time. Disappointed in not being able to expand her listener base, Converse moved back to Ann Arbor to be closer to her brother Phillip. Securing a job as a secretary before becoming managing editor for The Journal of Conflict Resolution, she stopped writing songs altogether.
By the end of 1972, loved ones witnessed Converse growing increasingly bored, depressed, and drinking more frequently. Friends collected money to send her on a sabbatical to London, where she stayed for less than a year. Afterward, Converse’s mother convinced her to take a trip to Alaska.
Converse’s songs were initially recorded in 1954 in the kitchen of Gene Deitch using a Crestwood 404 tape recorder. Her album How Sad, How Lovely was released in 2009 and created a fascination among those who had never heard of the artist. They are the only songs she recorded prior to vanishing from Ann Arbor, MI in 1974.
Reportedly, she told her brother, Phillip, “Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into.”
Shortly afterward, Converse placed her belongings inside her Volkswagen Beetle, left behind a bundle of goodbye letters, and was never seen or heard from again. Phillip would later say he did not know where his sister was or knew what he would say to her if she was ever found.
In the 2014 documentary We Lived Alone, Phillip read a couple of letters left by his sister, one of which reads: “Let me go, let me be if I can’t.” The Converse family hired a private investigator to learn of her whereabouts or if she had committed suicide. In the documentary, Phillip stated the investigator told the family that even if he did find her, it was her right to disappear.
Photo: Connie Converse album, How Sad, How Lovely (Fair Use image)