March 14, 2014 5:47 pm

Imperfect harmonies

‘Connie Converse sings from the point of view of a burdened soul with a chaotic life that seems to baffle her’

I had that strange, wistful feeling of wanting to buy a present for an old friend today, but I wasn’t sure it would be wise. The friendship lasted for nearly two decades but then, last summer, its elastic snapped. The ending of it plays through my mind in the middle of the night sometimes. I didn’t handle things well. I think of the short poem in which Brecht wrote: “You’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself.” I did not stand up for myself. I thought to do so would have caused too much attrition. Perhaps I should have done. Who knows?

The present in question is a record by a new discovery: the singer Connie Converse. I have fallen for her pretty hard. She isn’t well known but I don’t know quite how unknown she is. She may be virtually unheard of but in this house we listen to her CD How Sad, How Lovely all the time. She makes me think of Blossom Dearie crossed with Johnny Cash, although her sound is too original to warrant such comparisons. I think my old friend would love her too. I hope she would.

The music is wry and unassuming, a series of folk songs set to a guitar, recorded in the mid-1950s. The songs themselves are infectiously harmonious but the feelings Converse describes are often difficult in the extreme. In a series of small short stories we glimpse a life that is both a matrix of longing and a testimony to self-sufficiency. Left to her own devices, she can be good and strong and true but when life intervenes, when thoughts or feelings do, things tend to go awry.

There are many disappointments in these songs – unrequited love, loneliness and episodes of burnt fingers and hearts – but there is also a kind of valiant irony; the music daring as well as modest-seeming. Converse handles the delusions that afflict lovers with particular sensitivity. In “Father Neptune”, a woman in love with a fisherman prays to the god of the ocean to ensure her man stays safe from the sea’s violent whims. She muses with a shanty singer’s gusto, “I know it’s the boat that keeps him afloat/ But I like to think it’s me.”

In my favourite song (and there is much competition), “Roving Woman”, Converse sings from the point of view of a burdened soul with a chaotic life that seems to baffle her: “A lady never should habituate saloons/ And that is where I find myself on many afternoons.” Yet the song, rather startlingly, is really a hymn of gratitude to the many men, the strangers, who routinely prize her away her from cards and drink and see to it that she gets home.

. . .

Sometimes there are complications arising from these rescue bids, sometimes not. Converse sees these incidents as great acts of kindness. These men are shepherds. They are Samaritans. They lend a kind of rhythm to the madness of her days. Why do they do it? “Can’t be vanity, must be sheer humanity . . .”

In the sleeve notes to the album, her brother, Phillip Converse, describes what an enormous privilege it was having Connie (or Elizabeth, as she was known as a child) for a big sister. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone else make that claim about a sibling. Growing up in New Hampshire in the 1920s-30s, the children had a golden existence. There were so many adventures that they cursed the days for not having more hours.

Phillip writes that his sister made everything in his world exceptional: of the cartoon strips she did for him that were better than the ones he read in the press; the enormous picture she painted of Robin Hood and Maid Marian on the sewing room wall one day; her Plasticine Christopher Columbus, looking westward, that was displayed in the local library; her amazing poem about Lincoln that was published in the local paper. She was a prizewinning student and worked for a spell in the academic community of the University of Michigan at the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution. Perhaps that is somewhere I might undertake a short course.

The picture on the sleeve notes is of an intelligent-looking woman, fresh-faced, perhaps a tiny bit prim, sincere in her spectacles, with a great deal of sensitivity. Although hugely appreciated by those in the know, Converse’s music never gained the recognition it deserved, and this saddened her. The haunting tracks on How Sad, How Lovely, recorded at home, were only released for the first time on CD five years ago.

In 1974, Connie Converse wrote goodbye letters to friends and family, packed up her Volkswagen and disappeared, “her whereabouts unknown to this day”. Perhaps I will send this record to my old friend after all. Connie might help us.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @susieboyt

More columns at ft.com/boyt

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