Failed songs of ‘50s artist resonate with college crowd

While scrolling through columns of songs on Spotify, I knew what I was looking for — I just hadn’t heard it yet.

I needed a song that understood me. I needed to hear the voice of a friend.

That voice, in all of its dreamy melancholy, was Connie Converse’s.

In a low, balmy tone she sings: “Up that tree there’s sort of a squirrel thing / Sounds just like we did when we were quarreling / You may think you left me all alone / but I can hear you talk without a telephone.”

Since first finding Converse, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the little-known singer-songwriter. Between our shared world views and introspective tendencies, she may have been my age 62 years ago, yet she is someone with whom I’ve come to see a lot of myself in.

The high school valedictorian had all the makings of a folk legend: A restrictive childhood that budded into an explosive creativity, a sensitive soul, a mysterious disappearance.

But for Converse, the makings of a legend weren’t enough.

Dropping out of college and spending much of the ‘50s in Greenwich Village, the talented musician amounted to very little. And although she teamed up with recording engineer Gene Deitch, even making a cursory appearance on “The Morning Show” with Walter Cronkite, commercial success was nowhere to be found.

Yet despite her unpopularity, her music has held the test of time or the test of spirit, I can’t put my finger on which. I’ve begun to feel a strong connection with the failed star. Ambitious, sensitive perfectionists with old souls, I think we would have felt similarly about a lot of things, from the social movements of the time to the way the clouds sink into the sky.

Through the melodies she created to share her message Converse knew talent, but also failure. When I think of her and her story, it’s easy to feel a sense of impending dread knowing I too could plummet someday despite once-great potential.

And yet Converse’s story is two-sided. She may be known as a figure surrounded by “if onlys,” but in some ways she hasn’t failed, has she? Her audience may be small (about six other ironic Sylvia Plath types and me), but her poetical musings ring true after all these years.

And if art is at its core intimate communication of emotion and passion, Converse has created just as well as her contemporaries and predecessors, from Joan Baez to Katy Perry, just on a smaller scale.

By 1974, Converse went off the radar in search of a new life, never to be heard from again. Yet her end may not have been completely tragic. Audiences can look to the song “We Lived Alone” from Converse’s only album “How Sad, How Lonely” for solace:

“We lived alone, my house and I / We had the earth, we had the sky / I had a lamp against the dark / And I was happy as a lark.”

Converse’s art teaches that for many of us — scholars, dreamers and lovers, especially in the St. Edward’s liberal arts tradition — time is relative, but true art is forever.