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Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born on August 3rd, 1924 in Laconia New Hampshire. Laconia is a smaller city, and I’m sure it was even smaller back then but it has been classified as a city since 1893. She was born into a pretty strict religious family, her father Ernest Converse was a Baptist preacher. She had one younger brouther named Phil, and an older brother named Paul but I couldn’t find much about him at all, as well as her Evelyn. Phil said that they were pretty isolated from their parents growing up, like they were there but uninvolved outsite of discipline, which wasn’t uncommon for that time period.
She hated the name and Elizabeth as well as the accompanying common nicknames. She doesn’t get the Connie nickname until later, but that is what I’ll be referring to her as.
Connie was creative and curious in childhood. She enjoyed painting, writing short stories, and exploring music. She and her brother would quiz each other on world history, invent games, and re-enact Shakespearean plays. Phil said he learned more culture at her knee than he ever did in school. However, she always had a certain air of sadness around her. A close friend of Connie had committed when they were younger, and while everyone else was speaking about it in the community Connie was quiet. She felt that it was a private matter that shouldn’t be discussed and that taking one’s life is very personal. Her brother quoted her to say, “If anything should be left up to a person, it should be whether or not to live.” She was enlightened in a way that few other people could understand, which always left her on the outside looking in.
Connie was also very intelligent. All throughout school, she had high marks and even graduated valedictorian from Concord High School. She also was given various academic awards, and at the ceremony, as they were reading out the awards, Connie’s parents were actually embarrassed instead of proud. They felt as though the awards should have been spread out more fairly…
After high school, Connie set out for college at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the school her mother and grandmother attended before her. At college, she was introduced to a whole new world, having her first taste of life outside her strict religious upbringing. She began going by Connie.
During this time she began drinking and smoking, as plenty of people do at college. for her parents this was unacceptable. It was even more unacceptable when she dropped out of college in her second year to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. Connie’s parents refused to support her and were devastated by the choices Connie had made at that point. Her father specifically was so upset that he died without ever hearing her music. Despite protests, from her parents, Connie carried forward with what she wanted, and thank god for that.
Connie moved to New York City and got a job at the Academy Photo Offset Printing house. In her free time, she was writing and performing her music, hauntingly comforting tunes accompanied by herself on the guitar. Connie’s music was nothing like anyone had heard before, she had no idea that one day she would be looked back on as one of the first prolific singer/songwriters. Her brother Phil said that Connie wrote because she had to, as a form of coping with life. She had over 40 songs within her body of work, consisting of original lyricism, poems put with music, feminist anthems, and her own experiences spun into metaphorical melodies. Her music left a lasting impression, and in 1954 the right person finally heard Connie.
Gene Deitch came across Connie at a performance was struck by her sophisticated writing and evocative instrumentation. He said there were many better singers, but few were as intelligent, literate, or beautiful as Connie. That year, Gene brought Connie to his home studio and they recorded several songs. She soon after had her first and only television appearance, on the CBS Morning Show with Walter Cronkite. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for music like Connies. She truly was one of the first artists in the singer/songwriter genre.
She carried on for a while, but in 1961 Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village and swept up the audiences Connie had been trying to capture for 10 years. At that point, Connie was tired. She hadn’t gotten any contracts or deals, always met with rejection letters telling her she wasn’t sellable. Later that year, Connie leaves New York City and her musical dreams behind. She moved to Ann Arbour Michigan to be closer to her brother, got a job as a Secretary at the University of Michigan where her brother was a professor. She then moved to work as a writer for the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Slowly, she stopped writing or recording any music at all. She slipped heavier into her drinking and smoking, and despite liking her job, Connie was a generally sad person at this point. Her brother said she was depressed in ways nobody understood.
She wasn’t satisfied. All of this just got worse in 1972, when the journal she worked with for 10 years had been auctioned off to Yale without her knowledge. Her colleagues were so concerned about Connie’s state that they raised money to send her on a trip to London to boost her spirits, and she did go, but on her arrival home nothing had changed. The trip did not magically cure her dissatisfaction with life. Nonetheless, her mother decided to give the trip idea one more try and took Connie on a vacation to Alaska. Connie was miserable, and when they got home and she saw her mother already planning round 2, it only pushed her further into the hole.
It was around this time as well that Connie found out she would need a hysterectomy. This was devastating news to Connie, who had always been fond of children. After the hysterectomy, Connie was at an all-time low. She truly could not catch a break, so she decided to make a break for it.
In 1974, her brother invited her away for the summer but Connie declined. She spent June and July packing up her belongings and storing them in her brother’s attic, and in her Volkswagon beetle. Among the things stored was a filing cabinet filled to the brim with every label rejection Connie had ever received, labeled and organized, and left for the dust.
In August, around what would be her 50th birthday, Connie wrote letters to all of her loved ones. In these letters, she detailed her deterioration and her loss of passion for life and spoke about how she was going to pursue a new life. She said all efforts thus far by friends and the people of Ann Arbour were appreciated but failed to make her feel better. The full letter will be linked in the description below, but I would like to read an excerpt that I found to be the best representation of the tone of the letter.
“Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I cant…To survive it 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 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 to those happy times that each of you has given me over the years; and please know that I would’ve preferred to give you more than I ever did or could – – I am in everyone’s debt.”
By the time these words reached their recipients, Connie was already gone. At 50 years old, she packed up her Volkswagen and disappeared. Neither she nor her car was ever seen again.
There are many theories about what happened or didn’t happen to Connie, and why or why not it happened. Connie before she left had asked Phil to continue paying her health insurance. Beyond that, allegedly a friend of Connie’s had received a phone call from her sometime in 1975 or 1976, at least a year after her disappearance. In this phone call, Connie apologized to the friend for setting her up with a man who the friend had recently divorced. This was the last time anyone even claimed to hear from Connie. There were small leads, even a private investigator at one point, but to this day we don’t know what happened. Her brother had lots of thoughts about it and suspected she may have committed suicide by driving herself and her car into a body of water. Her letters could be interpreted by many as a certain type of goodbye.
It wasn’t until 2004 when her legacy would be reignited again, by the only man to ever give her a shot, to begin with: Gene Deitch. In January of 2004, now 80 years old, Gene appeared on a radio show hosted by music Historian David Garland, where he brought along a scratchy recording of Connie’s song ‘One By One. Two of Garland’s listeners, Dan Dzula and David Herman, were so enthralled by the music that they tracked down the rest of Connie’s Discography. Some of it is in Genes collection in Prague, as well as a library in Ann Arbor where they found tracks Connie had sent to her brother in the late 50s. The two new Connie Fans created a music label called Squirrel Things Recordings, the name being a lyric from one of Connie’s most famous songs Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains). In 2009, after decades of collecting dust, Connie’s music was finally heard and appreciated when her first album was officially released.
How Sad How lovely was first released in 2009 as 17 songs, then re-released in 2015 with 18 songs. Since then, we have also gotten an album of Connie’s piano songs and a new single just this year. I find it so interesting how Connie’s album title eerily is a summary of her own life story before she knew it. How sad it was that it happened how it did, but how lovely that even in her absence her music has solidified her legacy as one of the most important and mysterious songwriters in all of music history.
For an audio/video version of this story, check out the YouTube channel and this video on Connie:
Is country music Good? Well before you can really answer that, you gotta know what country music is, where it came from, and where it’s going. In this article, I want to tell you the real story of country music and how the erasure of its roots in the music industry has contributed to the lack of diversity in mainstream country artists and audiences, which has caused a lot of people to feel like there is no place for them in the genre as a creator or listener. As more black queer artists of color have entered re-entered the grenre within the last few years, the landscape of country music is changing for the better. So if you’re first thought when asked about country music is that it’s not for you, my hope is that by the end of this piece you will have found a place for yourself in the past, present and future of country music.
So before I dive too deep into this, I want to say that there are some resources I found through researching this topic that goes into much more depth into the history and progression of country music, and lots talking about the technicalities of that music like chord progressions and scales and their development in country music. Those resources are linked at the bottom of this post for you to check out, I will be focusing on the concept and history of country music as an experience and as a feeling. Remember that genres and categories are supposed to be used as navigators in music, like a GPS. If this analysis of country music was a roadtrip, we are focusing on the pit stops and the cool stuff you see on the side of the road on the outskirts of country music town, the stuff that really makes you feel like you’re on an adventure. And for us, the adventure starts with a little instrument called: the banjo.
The banjo originated as a descendent of West African lutes that were brought to America by enslaved people. It became an integral part of African American music and culture in the south. Soon enough, it would be appropriated by white artists and audiences, spread throughout the mainstream culture through ‘minstrel shows’ which were blackface musical productions done by white people mocking the lives of enslaved people.They were singing songs of black experience and of black creation, and this progressed into a genre of music initially coined ‘hillbilly music’ which later turned into ‘country music.’ A lot of artists who are looked at as grandfathers of the country music scene were mentored by black artists, like Lesley Carter who taught A.P. Carter of the famous Carter Family. Or, Rufus ‘Tee-Tot” Payne who mentored Hank Williams. Or perhaps Gus Cannon, who trained Johnny Cash. As time went on, white artists, particular white men, became the image of what country music is to the general population. Even though black artists had originally written and performed the songs, developed the sounds and the instruments. Black artists shifted into developing the foundations for all the other genres we know and love today, like Blues, R&B, and Jazz.
When country music was rising to fame in the late 20s and throughout the 30s, surprise surprise , there were queers being erased from the genre as well. The first gay country song is thought to be ‘I Love My Fruit’ by The Sweet Violet Boys, more commonly known as The Prairie Ramblers.
In the latter half of the 20th century we got the rise of a category of anti-capitalistic, anti-governement country music sometimes called Outlaw country, because thats what the message was behind the music. This era of country music is called a lot of different thing but the main point behind all of it is that they were making music for regular people. They were making music for the working class, the poor, the people in poverty and the people who were not represented by the government or their communities. Willie Nelson is famous for his support of marijuana, Dolly Parton has been a huge advocate for the queer community for years. Johnny Cash built his entire career off fighting for incarcerated people and the systematic opression set forth by the prison industrial complex. Now there were black and queer artists here, like Charrley Pride who rose to fame in the 70s and a band called Lavendar Country, who released the first known and obvious gay album in history. Their most famous song is called Cryin’ These Cocksuckin Tears, a direct response to the homophobes who were fighting against the rights of gay people in America. Lead singer Patrick Haggerty laid the groundwork for artists like Trixie Mattel and Oriville Peck to rise into pop culture, as well as experience their own resurgance later, but we’ll get there. These artists were doing what country was made to do: speak up, tell the stories of the people, and put those stories out there to be heard and and felt by the world in a way that felt beautiful and accessible. This category of country changed and shifted throughout the 80s and 90s, but once we get to the 2000s the entire idea of country music was ripped away from its roots and began being used as a political tool on the opposite end of the spectrum.
After 9/11, country music was the vessel for blind and loyal nationalism. You get the rise of what has become known as ‘stadium country’ or ‘bro country’ , which focuses on the idea of a good ol’ american love for your country, trucks, beer, and hot sexy ladies, now excluding the necessary critisism and social commentary that had established and carried the genre for upwards of a century. The genre focused so heavily on pushing the idea of our fantastic patriotic country that inherently the genre became only accessible to a demographic of artists that benefiited from the nationalistic image of the United States. Historically and still now, our America system is not built to benefit people of color, or queer people, and the mainstream country pipeline wasn’t built for them. This is not to say that all of the music categorized as ‘stadium country’ is bad music, or offensive at it core, but it is exclusive to a demographic of people that have benefiited from a system that was literally built for them to succeed. Hunter Hayes, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift 9who has obviously evolved, but started in this genre) all artists that I love and that have some incredible lyricism, and some patriotism in there that even I can relate too as a very harsh critic of our country, especially now. They also write about experiences that evryone can relate too, love stories, and heart break and loss and grief. But the cloud of exclusivity hinders a diverse audience from feeling welcome into those albums, at least in a public way. The image of a patriotic america was now the image of country music, and for the last 20 years that has been the standard. Artists like Luke Bryan, Florida Georigia Line, Blake Shelton, all took over the forefront of country music and anyone who went against the patriotic american country grain was pretty much exiled to the abyss of traitor land in the eyes of the general public. For example, the Chicks. Their career was basically ended (temporarily) after they spoke out against Bush and the war in the middle east. Now here we are 20 years later, and look at the state we are in. Politically, globally, we are yet again at another place of divisiveness in our country, and since country music is perceived as Americas Genre a lot of the time, the genre is reflecting that into the industry. BUT!! The face of country music does not equal the base of country music. The foundation, the pillars, the insulation, the elctricty, that is the base of country music and it is DIVERSE. There is a divide in the genre, in that valley lies the diversity and artistry that country music was built on. It is there, it’s just been hidden away into sub-category-country until the last few years.
As you go through the 2010s, artists began to rise on the scene like Kacey Musgraves, Orville Peck, YOLA, Chris Stapleton, Trixie Mattel, and Mickey Guyton, and Kane Brown. And of course, the resurgance of iconic gay country group Lavendar Country, who is still touring and advocating to this very day. These are just a few of many musicians that are bringing us back around to what country music was always supposed to be. They are making music for the working class. They are making music for their diverse fan bases. They are creating songs that are directly critical of the governmental bodies that were partially responsible for the downfall of country music to begin with. Mickie Guyton is a particular artists that is bridging the gap of what the face of country music is vs what the base of country music is, with her song Black Like Me. In this song she speaks to the mainstream country audience directly about her experience as a black person in America, which had been amplified into her experience as a country artist. Yola, a Black Americana artist who is merging pop and folk and soul music into what i can only describe as an out of body experience. This week on Rupauls Drag race, the final four were challenged with creating a country song that represented America, and at first I was like no thank you. But as I watched it I realized that the patriotism I am looking for and the pride I have in my country is still alive in country music. Here you have a 5 draq queens and, all of completely different backgrounds but all marginalized in America, reclaiming their stake in a country that has tried their best to erase them from it. And TANYA TUCKER, another incredible voice in the community is using her longtime established credit in the industry to put these voices on the forefront of country. If country music is Americas Genre, this is what I want to see and what I think we will continue to see as we go into the duture of Country Music.
In order for country music to continue on this path of growth and change, breaking down barriers of exclusivity, there has to be an audience there. If you are someone who in the past has not felt as if you could find yourself in country music, I promise you there is an artist somewhere in the wild wonderful world of country music who has created their music specifically with you in mind. As a lifetime fan and critic of country music, this is what I believe country music was made for. To speak to the unspoken, to sing for those without a song, and to represent what the mainstream wants to put into a closet. Now the question is… Is Country Music Good? My answer is… Country music is EVERYTHING. Country music is queer. Country music is Black. It’s funky, and traditional. It’s anything you want it to be if you remove the face of country, and you look at the base. Still doesn’t mean you have to like it, music is subjective and up to interpreatation but I feel like a lot of people don’t like country because they have only been shown or have only experienced pieces and parts of it without understanding the big picture.
If you are looking for an intro to country playlist, check out my Your First Rodeo – New Generation Country Playlist. I just know there is something in there you’ll like.
Here are some other sources you should check out if youre interested in learning more about country music!