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Connie Converse, How Sad, How Lovely

I recently received the gift of a CD with 17 original songs by Connie (formerly Elizabeth) Converse, written and recorded during the 1950s. From mostly homemade tapes, these have been “rescued” by Daniel Dzula of Brooklyn who says, “What strikes me is that her lyrical, musical and cultural dispositions seem to be many years ahead of their time.”

Born in New Hampshire in 1924, Connie moved to New York about 1949 and lived there through the 1950s. During this time her primary interests were playing and writing folk-music-type songs; she and her friends recorded over 40 of these. Despite the efforts of family, friends and other musicians, her songs never caught on, and by 1961 she tired of New York, moved to Ann Arbor and became an editor of the University of Michigan’s Journal of Conflict Resolution.

She became despondent in the 1970s, took a leave of absence, and in 1974 wrote a series of farewell letters to friends and family, packed her Volkswagen, drove away and disappeared. Her whereabouts remain unknown.

Restoration marvels have been done with the tapes so that we can hear the extraordinary range of her truly beautiful voice. She accompanies herself on guitar with basic chords and rhythms; words are clearly articulated and unobstructed. An admiring younger brother found her lyrics “amazingly clear and the melodies highly infectious.”

Gene Deitch, who helped with early recordings, recalls: “Her songs were indeed spellbinding, the likes of which none of us had heard before. She was an original, a highly literate, highly musical person, one of the first to have created such a vast canon of lovely, melodic, pure, funny, ironic, and also heartbreaking personal songs. She was way ahead of her time.”

Various manifestations of love dominate in this selection of songs: “We Lived Alone” tells of her love for her house, someone falls in love with “The Man in the Sky,” another prays to “Father Neptune” for the safety of her lover. In contrast, what happens to a thirsty cowboy in the “Clover Saloon” is very funny, even though he gets hung in the end. If I have a favorite, it is the “Roving Woman” who, “When I stray away from where I ought to be” just in the nick of time “someone tips his hat to me and takes me home”—not necessarily to her own.

Thanks to all whose appreciation of her music and work to save it have brought us Connie’s wondrous legacy. Time has caught up with her talents. This is a great recording; you’ll truly love it.

—Faith Petric

Hank Cramer, Loosely Celtic.

With a very definite Irish leaning and flavor, this recording is a mixture of shanties, sea narratives, and songs of war and strife. Hank Cramer, from the Pacific Northwest, has rendered traditional music in a distinctively rich, deep and vibrant voice for many years. If Cramer sounds a lot like the late Tommy Makem, it is more than mere coincidence; Makem has been one of his biggest influences down through the years. Cramer’s musical landscape is truly varied in time and locale: from the Great Lakes to the River Thames, the coast of Peru and mountains of rural Ireland to the even more distant shores of Australia, spanning from the 17th century (Ireland) to the American Civil War to the killing fields of WWI France.

My personal favorites include the classic “Four Green Fields,” a Makem composition with symbolic and meta­phorical references to the hope for a free and united Ire­land; Eric Bogle’s WWI eulogy “No Man’s Land,” about the horrors and madness of war; and the Pete St. John composition “Fields of Athenry,” the tale of a poacher sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay for trying to keep his family from starvation during years of famine.

Other memorable songs include a 17th century tribute to Irish Rebel “Ned of the Hill;” and Archie Fisher’s lament for the plight of fishermen in Scotland, “The Final Trawl,” on which Leah Larson gives a beautiful perform­ance as duet vocalist. Mark Iler and Brian Maskew provide excellent chorus work on such shanties as “Rolling Down The River,” “You Hilo Man,” “Bound Down To Australia,” and ”Who’s On The Way Boys,” which show just why Cramer is one of the true kings of the shanty genre. Even a sentimental song such as “The Mountains Of Mourne,” balanced between big city life and a wish to return to a rural Irish home, is given fresh and wonder­ful treatment in Cramer’s more than capable hands.

Backup musicians Audra Poor, Julia Bennett, Michelle Cameron, Davey Hakala, David Lange, Matt Rotchford, and Orville Johnson can be heard on banjo, fiddle, accordion, uilleann pipes, bass, harp, flute, tenor guitar, percussion, whistle, and more besides.

—Robert Rodriquez

Katherine Paterson, Bread and Roses, Too. Hardcover, 288 pages (Clarion Books, 2006).

Katherine Paterson’s books feature beautiful writing, sympathetic characters, and absorbing stories. They’re good for adults as well as youngsters.

The song “Bread and Roses” is a beloved anthem of the labor movement, celebrating an historic strike in 1912. As the century mark approaches, it’s time to revive that story.

Paterson’s 2006 children’s novel about that monu­mental struggle rigorously conforms to the actual events and the legendary historical figures of that time. It’s a riveting, powerful book that breathes life into those events (including the role played by the solidarity songs), as thousands of mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, with the help of the IWW, staged a two-month strike in bitter winter weather.

The author includes fascinating historical notes, plus sources for further information. Even her acknowledg­ments were interesting. The Bread and Roses slogan is associated with this strike, and she discusses the histori­cal evidence behind that. She lives in Barre, Vermont, a town that took in many children of the strikers, to protect them for the duration of the strike. A highly recommended book.

—Sol Weber