This is about two very talented women who pulled very different disappearing acts. Both remain somewhat unknowable. Both left behind unique, compelling bodies of work.
Connie Converse grew up in Concord, New Hampshire as the middle child in a Baptist family. Back then she was called Elizabeth. She stunned her parents by dropping out of college, flipping a full scholarship the bird, and moving to New York to pursue a career in music. She got a job at a printing house, adopted the nickname she’d been given by her New York friends, and started writing songs, having taught herself to play guitar.
She played for friends in casual settings. One of those friends was artist and film director Gene Deitch. He recorded a few dozen of her songs at her apartment and in his own kitchen with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He was able to get her a spot performing on The Morning Show on CBS in 1954, but all that survives of the television broadcast now are a few photographs of her and Walter Cronkite. Reusing tape was common practice back then, and the station recorded over her performance, not thinking it was anything important.
Her parents refused to support or acknowledge her musical aspirations. Her father died without hearing a note she wrote.
With Gene’s help, Connie pounded the pavement, trying to drum up some industry attention. But New York in the 1940s and ’50s wasn’t interested in what She had to offer. After years of getting nowhere, Connie gave up on music and moved to Michigan. Her younger brother got her a job as a secretary at the academic journal of the college he was teaching at. She worked her way up to the managing editor position in 1963. She still played for friends once in a while, but as far as anyone can tell she never wrote another song.
For ten years she did that job and grew more and more demoralized by her failure to succeed in New York, until she was outwardly depressed to the point that friends at work paid for her to take a leave of absence and spend the better part of a year living in London. She came back no less depressed. A trip to Alaska with her mother, during which she couldn’t drink or smoke, only made things worse.
Her mother thought distraction was the answer to whatever Connie’s problems were. She started planning another trip. Meanwhile, Connie was wrestling with the discovery that she would need to have a hysterectomy.
No one can remember seeing her on a date or in the company of anyone who wasn’t family or a friend from work. She doesn’t seem to have ever had a romantic relationship. There’s some speculation that she preferred the company of women at a time when she wouldn’t have been encouraged to act on those feelings. Even if that were the case, I don’t think it would have made it any less unsettling to be told a part of her body needed to be removed, and any hope she might have had of having biological children was going to vanish along with it.
In 1974, around the time of her fiftieth birthday, she wrote goodbye letters to family and friends, packed what she owned into her VW Beetle, and drove away. She was never seen or heard from again.
In an unsent draft letter she titled To Anyone Who Ever Asks, Connie wrote:
This is the thin hard sublayer under all the parting messages I’m likely to have sent: Let me go, let me be if I can, let me not be if I can’t. For a number of years now I’ve been the object of affectionate concern to my relatives and many friends in Ann Arbor; have received not just financial but spiritual support from them; have made a number of efforts, in this benign situation, to get a new toe-hold on the lively world. Have failed.
As an overeducated peasant I’ve read a good bit about middle-age depression and know several cases other than my own. I know there are temporary chemical therapies and sometimes “temporary” is long enough. Experts agree it’s not a single isolable mental disease. Probably it’s a few simple humanities mixed up in a pot of random concomitant circumstances.
In the months after I got back from my desperate flight to England I began to realize that my new personal incapabilities were still stubbornly hanging in. I did fight, but they hung in. Maybe my time in England, financed largely by my friends, was too benign a treatment. At any rate, it’s the only sustained period in my life that I now look back on in the silliest detail as “fun”, unproductive fun. Not getting anything done. I did sit in my bedsitter very often in bemused despair, but also I had fun.
Since then I’ve watched the elegant, energetic people of Ann Arbor, those I know and those I don’t know, going about their daily business on the streets and in the buildings, and I’ve 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.
To survive at all, I expect I must drift back down through the other half to the twentieth twentieth, which I already know pretty well, to the hundredth hundredth, which I have only read and heard about. I might survive there quite a few years — who knows? But you understand I have to do it by myself, with no benign umbrella. 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.
So let me go, please; and please accept my thanks for those happy times that each of you has given me over the years; and please know that I would have preferred to give you more than I ever did or could — I am in everyone’s debt.
There’s a terrible weight of loneliness and isolation in those words. Her brother thinks she drove her car off a bridge. You read a thing like that and think he’s probably right.
She left behind a meticulous filing cabinet full of letters, drawings, personal writings, and those reel-to-reel tapes of her songs, along with several more recordings she made herself. That’s either the sort of cleaning-house someone will engage in when they’ve given up on life, or an affirmation of what they’ve created, and something they mean to return to. You can’t know. There’s no way to know.
What bothers me is how little recognition and respect Connie was given for her talents. She wasn’t just a great songwriter. She was an activist (she marched for women’s rights). She wrote poetry. Her letters and private writings hum with a fierce intelligence. And she was a brilliant visual artist. I wish I could buy a book of her Educating Henry comics.
It’s clear she was wounded by the lack of anything like support from her contemporaries (if she even had any — she was doing the “folk singer-songwriter” thing before it even existed as a recognizable musical direction) and the indifference of the people who could have helped to give her musical career some legs. I know what it’s like to try and connect with people only to be ignored, rejected, marginalized — to put everything you have into the art you make and to have the message keep coming back at you that it doesn’t matter, and by extension you don’t matter either. I know what that feeling is.
Not everyone is lucky enough to find a way to re-purpose that rejection as fuel.
I think the problem was, she was so far ahead of her time, no one knew what to make of her. You look at her comics and it’s striking how “modern” their humour is. Her songs feel divorced from time altogether. There’s nothing dated in anything she did, nothing tying it to the time in which it was made. And to be a woman on top of everything else, at a time when sexism was much less interested in trying to camouflage itself and women were not often encouraged to be creative or to operate outside of the roles they’d been slotted into by men, well…you can feel it in her “explanation of what all these goodbye letters are really saying” above. She felt like she didn’t fit.
Depression isn’t always caused by something off-balance in the brain. Sometimes it’s just a side effect of what life does to you.
There’s a wonderful moment early in Andrea Kannes’ criminally underexposed documentary We Lived Alone. Connie’s brother and sister-in-law tell a story about their son. When he was a kid, he hated his piano lessons so much he ran away from home so he wouldn’t have to suffer through them anymore. Connie found him, brought him home, and told him she would be his new piano teacher. Instead of trying to strong-arm theory into his brain, she taught him how to improvise and write his own songs.
That’s beyond forward-thinking. Most music teachers today — and aunts, for that matter — wouldn’t dare throw the template away. The more things like that you find out about her, the more remarkable you realize she was, and the more you wish you could have had the chance to know her.
Connie’s music was unheard and unknown outside of her family and closest friends until the 2009 release of How Sad, How Lovely. What’s most interesting to me about her songs is not their timelessness, but the trick they play on you. They sound simple. Then you listen a little deeper, you start paying attention to the way they’re constructed and the way they move, and you hear all kinds of complex, unusual harmonic things happening. There’s a lot going on inside of them. I’ve never heard anyone do anything quite like what she did with just her voice and an acoustic guitar.
There are also things like this:
She did that in the 1950s with an archaic home stereo, finding a way to overdub and layer a home recording at a time when such a thing shouldn’t have been possible. Wrap your mind-noodle around that for a second.
Connie would be ninety one years old today. We can only hope she drove her car to a new, happier life, and not into the Huron River. But maybe that was the ending she wanted. I’m both compelled and frustrated by mysteries like this. Each answer you manage to unearth leads to five more questions that rise up like hairs on the back of the neck.
Bobbie Gentry vanished under less troubling circumstances. She was an only child, born in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Back then she was called Roberta Lee Streeter. Her grandmother noticed Roberta’s love for music early on and traded one of her cows for a neighbour’s piano so she’d have something to learn on.
Roberta took her stage name from the film Ruby Gentry, studied philosophy at UCLA, did clerical work during the day and performed at nightclubs after hours, and later studied music to hone her songwriting skills. Her first single in 1967 was a blues song.
It was the B-side that got everyone’s attention. “Ode to Billie Joe” is one of the all-time great story songs, and at its heart is a disquieting two-part mystery: what did Billie Joe McCallister and his girlfriend toss off the bridge, and why did Billie Joe kill himself?
Bobbie knew the answers to those questions, but she wasn’t telling. When the record company forced her to chop out half the verses to shorten the song and the explanations evaporated, she noticed it had the strange effect of strengthening the story. Sometimes you can say much more by saying less.
“The song is sort of a study in unconscious cruelty,” she explained. “But everybody seems more concerned with what was thrown off the bridge than they are with the thoughtlessness of the people expressed in the song. What was thrown off the bridge really isn’t that important. Everybody has a different guess about [that] — flowers, a ring, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want, but the real message of the song, if there must be a message, revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about the suicide. They sit there eating their peas and apple pie and talking, without even realizing that Billie Joe’s girlfriend is sitting at the table, a member of the family.”
The record company didn’t expect much to come of the song. The A&R man at Capitol Records told arranger Jimmie Haskell, “Put some strings on it so she won’t be embarrassed. No one will ever hear it anyway.” But radio DJs spun the B-side until it became the A-side, and in a week it sold three quarters of a million copies, kicking “All You Need Is Love” off the top of the charts. It stuck there for a month and won three Grammy awards.
Bobbie was an outspoken feminist, and an unapologetic glamorous woman in an era of singer-songwriters who were eschewing big hair and makeup. She had strong ideas about the direction her music and career should take. She produced her own nightclub act in Vegas and said at the time, “I write and arrange all the music, design the costumes, do the choreography, the whole thing. I’m completely responsible for it. It’s totally my own from inception to performance. I originally produced [most of my records], but a woman doesn’t stand much chance in a recording studio. A staff producer’s name was nearly always put on the records.”
After an ambitious self-produced album was a commercial failure and a few singles failed to make an impression on the charts, Bobbie decided it was time for something else. She made one last public appearance in 1982. Then she receded into a private life.
Not much has been heard from or about her in the years since. Maybe she married a wealthy man involved in real estate. Maybe she had children. One sure thing: she’s been turning down every interview request for thirty years running.
A recent radio documentary revealed she phoned Haskell sometime in the last few years, telling him she’d written a new song. She asked if he was interested in producing it. He blew her off and suggested someone else. When he decided maybe he was interested after all, she wouldn’t return his calls.
Served him right.
She was one of the first female country artists to both write and produce the bulk of her own material, though I think to stuff what she did into the country genre does it a disservice. Her songs were much more eclectic than that. She seems to be content with the life she’s built for herself away from the spotlight.
Connie might as well have driven her car into thin air. Bobbie’s still here. She just chooses not to be seen.