"Lost" Album of the Week: Connie Converse's 'How Sad, How Lovely'

On March 23, 2016

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Each week, we dig in the crates to tell you about a “lost” or classic album we think you should hear. This week’s covers Connie Converse's How Sad, How Lonely. 

There is no folk story quite as shocking as that of Elizabeth “Connie” Converse, who literally disappeared in 1974 after a two-decades-long failed attempt at breaking into the New York City music business. And with mysterious songs like ‘Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains),’ it’s as if she even wrote her own epitaph: “In between two tall mountains, there’s a place they call lonesome. Don’t know why they call it lonesome, ‘cause I’m never lonesome when I go there…”

The story begins in 1944, when Converse dropped out of college in a small northeastern town and moved to the big city in hopes of “making it” as a folk singer. She found work there with various office jobs and eventually landed a break by attracting the attention of the animator and director Gene Deitch, who called her “so intelligent, so brilliant, and at the same time so mysterious, an angel of evocative song.” Aside from his work in art and film, Deitch had a strong (albeit amateur) interest in music and recording, having previously taped blues and bluegrass legends like John Lee Hooker and Pete Seeger. Deitch invited a crowdful of friends over to his house to hear Converse perform in his kitchen. Despite his fervent support, the recordings from that night never reached a larger audience until 50 years later when he was invited to play some songs on the famed NPR affiliate station WNYC. One of the listeners that night just happened to be Dan Dzula, the Emmy-winning and Grammy-nominated audio engineer who then spent years tracking Deitch down to see those old recordings through to a proper release.

Converse’s younger brother Phillip describes their childhood years as a busy flurry of art in all forms. In school she could draw comics, paint murals, write poems, and seemingly accomplish anything creative that she’d set her mind to. She was valedictorian of her high school class, and won the scholarship that sent her to Mt. Holyoke College, which she eventually fled from “to seek her fortune.” Year after year she mailed him monthly recordings of her little folk songs, sometimes just setting music to famous poems by Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas. Eventually she became so discouraged about her inability to find any success in New York City that she left altogether to move near her brother in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the summer of 1974 she was quoted as saying: “Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can't find my place to plug into it.” Shortly thereafter, she packed up her small collection of belongings into her Volkswagen Beetle, wrote goodbye letters to everyone she could stand, and disappeared entirely, never to be heard from again by her friends or family, not even her brother whom she’d been so close with. A 2014 documentary reveals one of these letters, as her brother reads: “Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t. I’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of Ann Arbor, those I know and those I don’t, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and I felt a detached admiration for their energy and elegance. If I ever was a member of this species perhaps it was a social accident that has now been cancelled.”

The album features artwork by New York City photographer Sarah Wilmer, who collaborated with Mike Schultz on a series of collages and paintings. This bit that depicts Converse with lasers coming out of her eyes is a perfect rendering, capturing the sharp wit of her lyricism and the science-fiction-like fantasy of her disappearance. The record clocks in at 18-tracks, a long one by anyone’s standards even though some songs barely make it over a minute in length, but it’s a fitting collection given the backstory. Often the songs are fictional stories, but many are biting social commentaries like ‘Roving Woman,’ where she sings comic lines about the way women are treated differently than men: “People say a roving woman is likely not to be better than she ought to be. A lady never should habituate saloons, but that is where I find myself on many afternoons. And poker is a game a lady shouldn’t play, but every floatin’ poker game just seems to float my way.” ‘Trouble’ hints that maybe it was heartache that drove her away from the world: “Ever since we met the world’s been upside-down, and if you don’t stop troublin’ me you’ll drive me out of town. But if you go away, as trouble ought to do, where will I find another soul to tell my trouble to?” The title track ‘How Sad, How Lovely,’ ends with the words: “Like life, like a smile, like the fall of a leaf, how sad, how lovely, how brief.” The same could be said of Converse herself.

The album never saw release until a CD pressing in 2009 by Lau Derette, and then on vinyl in 2014 by Squirrel Thing Recordings, the reissue-centric subsidiary of the Brooklyn indie phenom Captured Tracks label, home to Mac DeMarco, Beach Fossils, and others. Squirrel Thing even takes its name from a line in Converse’s ‘Two Tall Mountains,’ and went on to release a beautiful collection of homemade recordings by Molly Drake, mother of folk legend Nick Drake. What’s interesting about these records is that they were never actually released in the first place, and the simple fact that the songs still exist today is fantastically fortunate. ‘How Sad, How Lovely’ is compiled from 17 of Converse’s recordings taken from two sources, those original tapes tracked by Gene Deitch in his kitchen, and the steady collection of songs she’d sent her brother in the 50’s. Therefore, those recent 2014 reissues are the only way to come by this album. It was initially issued as a limited edition pressing on clear vinyl, and then on an easier-to-find pressing on black vinyl, which will only run you the standard $20-25.

The critics’ response has been overwhelmingly positive. NPR described the album as “unusual, tuneful, smart, poignant, and personal,” while Pop Matters called it a “siren-like allure impossible to resist.” Wherever it was that Converse ended up, her legacy has certainly been framed for the fascination of all who stumble across her. Listen below via Spotify:

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