Saturday, April 25, 2009

Connie Converse

A few days ago, my wife e-mailed me a link to NPR’s “Song of the Day,” with a story about a woman named Connie Converse who wrote, sang and recorded poignant little folk songs in New York in the mid-1950s. Converse was a relative unknown who never put out a commercial recording. She left New York for Ann Arbor, where she worked at the University of Michigan for a dozen years. Then in 1974, she packed her belongings in her VW bug and drove away, never to be seen again.

This video features Ms. Converse singing her song, “One by One.”

The video was accompanied by evocative photos from the Luminous Playhouse Theater Company, the creation of artist Anne Garland. Here’s how Ms. Garland describes the Luminous Playhouse:

The stage for The Luminous Playhouse Theater Company is a five-story 1960s abstract modern dollhouse that fills several shelves in my work space. In its dreamy, glowing rooms I set up changing scenes with an eclectic assortment of figures and props that I’ve collected for this project. Everything’s intentionally mismatched in style and scale—some things are new, some I made myself, many are vintage with their own mysterious histories that add to their storytelling potential.

I’ve been experimenting in the Luminous Playhouse with color and staging and lighting, blur and depth of field, realism and artifice to create what I think of as visual narrative or theater—an evocative cinematic interior-scape. I love how the camera reveals a vivid and potently human world in these artificial constructed scenes. To me the characters’ expressionlessness and their static, stiff poses only enhance the drama. Their impassivity invites an utterly personal interpretation, allowing—even requiring—us to bring our own emotional narrative meanings to the tableaus.
You can listen to more songs on a MySpace page someone has set up for Ms. Converse. The songs there include one with this great rhyme:

Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing
Sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling.

When I listen to Connie Converse, I hear something out of the folk era of the 50s and 60s, but I also hear contemporary female singer-songwriters. Without knowing anything about her, would I know she recorded 55 years ago, or would it be just as easy to believe that she recorded yesterday? If you told me she was working as a barista at Stumptown and performing at Mississippi Studio in the evening (probably with the Portland Cello Project accompanying), I might believe you.

Here's Portland's Laura Gibson:

Another Portlander, Laura Veirs:

And Joanna Newsome, who hails from Nevada City, California (where my parents now live):

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