June 2009


Robert Forster

Lost women found

The discovery of Vashti Bunyan, Sibylle Baier and ‘Connie’ Converse

“When did you write that? How did you happen ... to ... uh ...” The nervous and incredulous male voice stops there on the tape. It's 1954, and Connie Converse, the singer and songwriter who has elicited this response, has just recorded one of her songs onto the reel-to-reel. Fifty-five years later the quality of the song is undeniable and the questions put to her still have a strange poignancy. How did she write these songs? How did it happen that at the great cultural crossroads of postwar New York there was a lone woman writing songs on guitar with a sophistication of lyric and melody unmatched by any other folk songwriter of the time? It stumped the man who was recording her, and her answers, if she gave any, aren't on the tape.

How she went unnoticed in her day is easier to explain. She had no manager or agent with uptown showbusiness connections, and she didn't perform in public. All she had were the songs and her circle of friends. But it has turned out to be enough, as it did for fellow singer-songwriters Sibylle Baier and Vashti Bunyan, all of whom put songs in a bottle and kissed them goodbye, not knowing that one day the bottle would drift back, carrying the dreams and emotions of youth, to be picked up by an audience far larger and more appreciative than the one that greeted the music at its inception.

Vashti Bunyan was supposed to be the new Marianne Faithfull. She had the beauty, the ethereal, wispy voice, and she had a ballad written by Jagger and Richards. All of which had been enough for Faithfull to have a hit with ‘As Tears Go By', but Vashti's first single, ‘Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind', bombed. She was 20 and it was 1965. Unlike Faithfull, Vashti was a songwriter, a purveyor of fine melancholic acoustic folk more akin to the continental pop of French star Françoise Hardy. There were more singles over the next few years, written by Vashti, but they also failed to chart.

By '68 she'd had enough and set off on an adventure typical of the time. The goal was a commune on the Isle of Skye being set up by the pop singer Donovan, a friend of Vashti's travelling and romantic partner, Robert Lewis. The twist was that they set off from London up the A6 in a horse-drawn wagon, finally arriving two summers and a winter later to find Donovan and the commune gone. Along the way, she had written a suite of songs that documented the dreams and scenes that were pointing the travellers to a new way of life. These songs became the candlelit core of Vashti Bunyan's first album, Just Another Diamond Day, released in 1970.

The record was produced by supporter and fan Joe Boyd, for the wonderfully named Witchseason Productions. The musicians were from Fairport Convention and The Incredible String Band, with string and recorder arrangements by Robert Kirby, famous now for his work with Nick Drake. Yet the album received that most dispiriting of responses: indifference mixed with the sting of critical hostility. Vashti, taking this as both professional and personal failure, quit the music business and turned to the raising of her three children, the tending of her animals and the graft of self-sufficiency in farms and communities ranging from the Isle of Berneray in the Outer Hebrides to rural Ireland. During these 20 years of hard back-to-the-land living, she wrote no songs and made no music, shelving her music career and the perceived artistic and commercial disaster of Diamond Day to the extent that her children, upon finding a copy of the album in her possession, could only listen to it in secret in the family car. It was the attainment of adulthood of her elder son and daughter that drew her back into the urban world of Edinburgh in the late '90s, and it was sheer curiosity a few years later that made her type her name into an internet search engine. She found that Just Another Diamond Day was going for $2,000 a copy.

Not every album released and sold in small quantities in the early '70s commands such prices. The producer and the musicians, and their connections to what is now regarded as a golden era of experimental folk music, would have helped, but the magic lies in the record itself. It's a beautiful album, as otherworldly as you'd expect, with all the dew-dropped atmosphere of late '60s counter-cultural folk.

There are the fifing whistles, recorders, banjos and strings, but what serves the album best is its gorgeous songs. The melodies have pop craft that lifts them above the usual three-chord strum, and the lyrics eschew rose-tinted hippy glasses or the dodge of medieval mysticism for something softer and more real: the wonder of nature in the landscape, the appreciation of its beauty lost in the rush of modern life. The album is a glimpse of another world, and the trumpeting of the recorders and whistles makes that call all the more noble and magnificent. At the front is Vashti, her rallying call a soft prayer to the rainbow rivers, to the windows over the bay, the glow-worms lighting the way to a place where "fairy stories are whispered till they're real".

When reissued in 2000, the album received the rapturous reviews it had deserved the first time around. Also waiting were the young hippies and hipsters of the gathering freak-folk movement led by Devendra Banhart, who had Just Another Diamond Day pegged as essential listening and the story of the horse and wagon down as myth. Vashti triumphantly toured, and in 2005, 35 years after the release of her debut album, came the follow-up, the strong and sombre Lookaftering. A lyric from the album's best song, ‘Wayward', tells the whole story: "I wanted to be the one / with road dust on my boots / and a single silver earring / and a suitcase full of notes / and a band of wayward children / with their fathers left behind / all in their castles in their air / and houses in their land." She is currently somewhere on the American west coast with the young folk-rockers Vetiver, making album number three.

In Stuttgart in 1970 there was a group of bohemian young Germans who were interested in film, music, art and politics. One of them was the future filmmaker Wim Wenders; another was an actress, artist and future songwriter called Sibylle Baier. In 1973 she appeared in Wenders' Alice in the Cities, and by then she had recorded a collection of her own songs, sung in English and backed by her acoustic guitar, on a reel-to-reel machine in her living room. She gave Wenders, and probably other friends too, a cassette copy. And that's the end of the story, except that 35 years later Wenders, while standing in front of Reckless Records in Chicago, sees a familiar face, a young face, on a record cover in the shop window. It's Sibylle Baier. He rushes into the shop to buy a copy of the music he's been carrying around on a battered cassette since the '70s.

Colour Green came about through Baier's first son, Robby, who grew up with his mother in the United States to become a musician and record producer. He compiled a CD of her unreleased songs and gave a copy to J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr, who forwarded them to the Orange Twin label, which released the album to insider acclaim. Wim Wenders, reacquainted with Baier's music and still in contact with her, immediately commissioned her to write a new song for his film Palermo Shooting. She did: it's called ‘Let Us Know', and for some, hearing this song was the door back to Colour Green and the life of Sibylle Baier.

The album is totally intriguing: an artefact that offers the pleasures of its songs and the mysteries of the tomb. The music is similar in style to that of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. But here's the scary bit - it's also as good. It is doing Colour Green a disservice to linger on comparisons, but from Cohen there is the plucked jauntiness of the nylon-string melodies and the European dance of melancholy and poetry; from Mitchell there's the advanced guitar technique and a jazzy coolness in the singing. From both comes the idea of the song as confessional. That's the frame, but what Baier does with it is truly amazing. Here are 14 songs that many an artist would be happy to sprinkle over a four-album career. Running concurrent with the vast pleasures that the record gives are the questions it throws up. How does a young German woman learn to sing and write in English so well? Where did the remarkable guitar playing come from? Where was the folk scene (in Stuttgart?) that would have nurtured and supported her? Answers aren't forthcoming from the reclusive Baier, and because she had no standard ‘rock' career there are no interviews to go back to. Instead there is an enigma, a new great singer-songwriter popping out of the air, her existence only known to us because her son gave a CD of her songs to the lead singer of Dinosaur Jr.

If Vashti Bunyan and Sybille Baier seem like big stories, with their fragile and treasured songs like golden eggs lost and finally found, then the tale of Connie Converse is something else altogether, a drama so sprawling, with a denouement so unexpected, that Hollywood can only gaze in wonder: Reese Witherspoon or Kate Winslet are probably practising the acoustic guitar right now.

Elizabeth Eaton ‘Connie' Converse was born in Laconia, New Hampshire in 1924 to strict God-fearing parents. Exceptional at school, she gained an academic scholarship to Mount Holyoke College and had one kind of life in order and on track when she threw it in and left, after two years' study, for New York City. In 1949 she bought a guitar and soon after started writing songs. She worked as a printer and lived alone in Greenwich Village. A man-about-town with an ear for music by the name of Bill Bernal heard her in private gatherings in Manhattan and alerted his friend Gene Deitch. Deitch, an animator, had recorded artists such as John Lee Hooker and Pete Seeger live on tape. He invited Converse to his Hastings-on-Hudson home to record in his kitchen. It is his incredulous voice that can be heard on the tape asking "when" and "how" at the end of one of her songs.

There were a few sessions at Deitch's house; most of the recordings were finished by 1954. Converse had a circle of friends who encouraged her music and she played privately in homes, but not clubs. There were no commercial recordings of her music made and approaches to publishing houses met with rejection. In 1961, with no breakthrough in her music career, she left New York for Ann Arbor, Michigan. Through her brother who was a professor at the University of Michigan, she got a secretarial job and soon after became editor of the university's Journal for Conflict Resolution. By 1973, heavy drinking was fuelling her depression, and colleagues and friends pooled money for her to spend six months in England. The following year, back in the US, she wrote a series of goodbye notes to those around her, drove off in her Volkswagen bug and was never heard of again.

Gene Deitch went to Prague in 1959, where he has lived and worked ever since. (In 1961 his short animated film Munro, written by Jules Feiffer, won an Academy Award.) In 2004, the 80-year-old Gene Deitch was invited back to New York City by the music historian David Garland to appear on his renowned and long-running radio show Spinning on Air. Deitch brought along some of his old live recordings, including a song called ‘One by One' by Connie Converse; after 50 years she was getting her first radio play. Garland was deeply impressed and instantly interested in the story, as were two young listeners, Dan Dzuda and David Herman, who began the slow process of releasing an album. There were two sources for the tapes: Deitch's collection in Prague, and a filing cabinet in Ann Arbor containing recordings Connie sent back to her ever-supportive brother during the early 1950s. In March 2009, How Sad, How Lovely, containing 17 original songs by Connie Converse, hit the market.

It is both a historical document and a living, breathing album by a musician whom Garland describes as possibly the first American singer-songwriter. If nothing else, the record challenges history. The question is whether to see her as a wild precursor to the singer-songwriter movement that began in the early '60s, or as a singular artist, an Emily Dickinson figure, caught out of time, working enclosed and unknown. There were folk-based singer-songwriters in the '50s, such as Pete and Peggy Seeger and Malvina Reynolds, writer of ‘Little Boxes' and ‘Morningtown Ride' (later covered by The Seekers). But these were primarily political writers, and none foresaw the coming wave of youngsters who would drag poetry and private feelings together to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. Connie Converse was doing this, alone and unaided, making a deep and marvellous connection between lyric and song that allows us to enter the world of an extraordinary woman living in mid-twentieth-century New York.

They are a most peculiar bunch of songs. Part of this is due to Converse's cultural isolation, and part to the songs' connection to a period of popular culture that is now more than fifty years in the past. It is found in the prim and precise vocal style, and the crisp, concise strut and Broadway and popular-song shadings of her guitar playing. As strange as it is to hear folk music without the '60s inflections - the flatness of the rhythm, the slurred singing, the influence of the blues - equally strange is hearing early '50s music with post-'60s emotional honesty. The most striking songs on the album, ‘One By One', ‘There Is a Vine' and ‘Honeybee', portray a woman often waiting, lonely, proud, difficult and in need of attention or affection. Women weren't writing these kinds of songs in the 1950s; they weren't writing songs so desperate or pure of feeling, or so flippant and wild. It is hard to imagine anyone else from the era packing this moral ambiguity into a song: "People say a roving woman is likely not to be / better than she ought to be / so when I stray away from where I've got to be / someone always takes me home." Or the wit and spark of "Up that tree there's sort of a squirrel thing / sounds just like we did when we were quarrelling". Family and friends regarded Converse as smart, possessing an intelligence that Deitch recalls as intimidating, and it's all through these songs. Yet there are no real relationships in the narratives, no recognisable congress between men and women, only ‘The Man In The Sky', the sailor boyfriends happier at sea in ‘Father Neptune', and in ‘Johnny's Brother', the brother of the man you marry who may be the father of your child.

One last thought: it's amazing how uncompromising the music of these three women is. Connie Converse and Sibylle Baier had nothing to lose: they were amateurs in front of a tape machine. Vashti had a career. But the songs they wrote don't shirk. This is confrontational music that's soft, melodic and tender, and the truths these women are putting over have a power that many an artist screaming and growling over noise would be afraid to go near. So ultimately it's brave; brave to have done it in the first place and braver still to go on, knowing that the songs weren't probably ever going to reach the audience they so richly deserved. Sibylle Baier gave out cassettes, Vashti Bunyan tried and withdrew, and Connie Converse left the copyrights of her songs to her brother in the face of twenty years' indifference to her music. She knew.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

Cover: June 2009
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