Beyond Time: Ellsie Kay, Connie Converse and a Musical Lineage

The singer-songwriter Connie Converse was born in 1924 and raised in New Hampshire. Her musical and creative aspirations took her, along with so many others, to Greenwich Village and the city at large. Much of her oeuvre was self-recorded in the early 1950s in her Greenwich Village apartment, accompanying her vocals with guitar. Other informal recordings were made under the aegis of legendary animator and music lover Gene Deitch (who, as of this writing, died a few days ago). Converse was a guest on Walter Cronkite’s Morning Show. She created a small niche as a singer-songwriter before the term singer-songwriter even existed.

Fame, to say the least, did not beckon, nor did any significant recognition. In 1961, she bade farewell to New York City and her musical ambitions, relocating to Ann Arbor, Michigan. She immersed herself in editorial work, helming an academic journal. Connie Converse, from all accounts, was a significantly unhappy person. In 1974 she drove off and was never heard from again. This sounds utterly improbable, the stuff of a hackneyed movie or urban legend. But it is true: In a mysterious, horrible turn of events, she upped and vanished.

Converse’s music sounds like the female sixties singer-songwriter par excellence: A woman and her acoustic guitar; unadorned and emotive vocals, lyrics with a wide, literate range. But her music did not spring from the 1960s. It was an exclusive province of the 1950s. “Ahead of its time” is an overused phrase. In the case of Connie Converse, it is entirely apt. Her musical output was basically untethered to any larger coterie of like-minded musicians. She frequented no clubs, was not a participant in seminal jam sessions.

Her music and persona are redolent of a certain sub-set of that era. This is pure conjecture, of course; I know nothing about the sort of person she really was. There was an arty intelligentsia in the 1950s and 1960s, the sort who skated in and around the various streams of alternative culture–without falling through the ice. These people were anchored to the middle class, holding respectable jobs and thoroughly averse to becoming a beatnik or joining a commune. They lived with these middle class trappings, but were far too idiosyncratic to truly fit in with a life of conformity. Perhaps there was a Tom Lehrer album at the ready, Esperanto lessons, a love of Portuguese music. They had better coffee than anyone else, knew obscure limericks. It is a subset long vanished.

Connie Converse disappeared. Her music, thankfully, did not. A devoted coterie tended to her extant recordings, ensuring that her legacy did not evaporate. The music has endured, garnering a steadily increasing following. Howard Fishman has had a large hand in bringing Converse’s music to the wider world, penning a New Yorker piece in 2016. A Star Has Burnt My Eye is his theatrical tribute to her. He has resurrected Converse’s piano music—inspired by the poetry of Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, and others–its existence hitherto confined to manuscript form.

The Canadian musician Ellsie Kay, based in British Columbia, is the latest link to the musical lineage of Connie Converse. Her album, In The Galaxy, was released in 1997 under the name Another Girl. That year, sitting at an office desk in New York City, Walkman attached securely to my head, I shifted my chair in every conceivable position—trying not to look too conspicuous—in a futile effort to pick up WFMU, the legendary freeform radio. Suddenly, for a few minutes, WFMU miraculously penetrated the office walls and the vocals of an absolutely wonderful, magical song filled my ears before the station, predictably, faded away. The singer—and, as I was to discover, multi-instrumentalist—called herself Another Girl. I purchased In The Galaxy as soon as I could. A few weeks later I was visiting friends in Boston and just happened to scan a local paper: Another Girl was appearing in Boston right that very night. I attended.

As I sat at that desk in 1997, I reflected that my life had recently undergone a series of messy bumps. I further reflected that many of these bumps had been smoothed out. The road ahead was infused with no small measure of optimism. The fact that Another Girl’s music had suddenly presented itself out of the morass of radio static seemed providential. In The Galaxy took on its own private aura.

In The Galaxy did not receive the attention it was due. Nor did Another Girl. Public reception aside, Another Girl–who in the meantime had begun recording under the name Ellsie Kay–never stopped making music. There was a stint living in Nova Scotia, where she “met an old-time country folk artist and in many ways received a whole new musical education….I was fascinated with those old-style songs and the art of storytelling that it seemed to embody.”

That fascination has led, indirectly or not, to a strong affinity for the emotional resonance of Connie Converse’s music. Her latest, recent endeavor has been to record five of her songs. (Ellsie Kay Plays Connie Converse) “Connie’s music,” Ellsie Kay says, “seemed not only beyond time but also almost designed specifically for me. I was absolutely excited to really get to know” some of these songs “and put my own spin on them.” And it very much is her own spin: a reinterpretation that fuses her own voice and artistry, yet hews to Converse’s template.

“She’s just so special.  I can’t describe that absolute thrill of already knowing these songs when I first heard them.  I felt like I already knew them.  Once in awhile that happens.  With hers I knew instantly that I wanted to play these songs that already felt like mine in a way.  Not that I would ever come up with anything like this.”

As per In the Galaxy, Kay took on the role of multi-instrumentalist. “The challenge and fun of doing them with a bunch of instrumentation was so inviting because it’s always just her and the guitar.  It’s like a great outline in a coloring book and you get to go in and do whatever you want.  It felt like such an interesting thing to do.

“She was not only a really interesting guitar player, with melodic tendencies that seem to span genres and eras, but her lyrics are brilliant. So many of her songs make me laugh, even when I’ve heard them so many times.”

Her music, says Kay, speaks “of the heaviness that lurks but can be filtered to some degree if you are playing or writing or doing music in some way. It’s almost like a demand from the universe, to be that channel, to make music or suffer for not doing so. I resonated with her story in the way that I know how difficult it is to carry around that creative drive but not have a true outlet for it, or for it not to be recognized or supported….I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her…”

“I think music,” Ellsie Kay says, “has saved my life in many ways. It’s at least given it much more meaning.”

Music could not cure whatever it was that ailed Connie Converse. But her own music does endure—thanks in no small part to the efforts of musicians like Ellsie Kay–garnering its long-overdue place in the American songbook.

The pitfall in discussing Converse’s music is that her artistry will be overshadowed and sensationalized by the unresolved, eerie circumstances of her end. There is no way, though, to really separate what happened to her in 1974 from her canon. The deep, underlining melancholia in the music of Charlie Parker is all the more striking when one has knowledge of his short, turbulent life and times. There is a claustrophobic, embedded misery to Nirvana. Connie Converse will be forever preserved in amber.