“Bill Morrissey was a great writer – not just a songwriter, but a critically praised novelist,” said John Platt, host of Sunday Breakfast on WFUV in New York, who broke the news of his passing to a stunned audience during the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, NY last weekend. “He was a disciple of bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and a mentor to young songwriters like Ellis Paul,” Platt told AcousticMusicScene.com. “Unfortunately, like far too many writers, he had a serious drinking problem, which had threatened his health for years. When I interviewed him three years ago for the Sunday Breakfast, he seemed to have straightened out, but it appears that his body finally gave out last weekend.” Like other folk DJs across the U.S., Platt will pay tribute to Morrissey during his radio show this weekend. “I’ll replay highlights of that interview this Sunday, but I’ll feel his loss, as will so many others, for years to come. Sunday Breakfast airs Sunday, from 8-11 a.m. on 90.7 FM in the New York metropolitan area and streams live online at www.wfuv.org.
Morrissey released 10 recordings – beginning with an eponymous album in 1984 — and contributed songs to a number of compilations and recordings by other artists. He was twice nominated for Grammy Awards, including one for his 1999 album, The Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, who was among the old country bluesmen whose works had influenced him, as had such other disparate artists as Bob Dylan , Dave Van Ronk and Hank Williams. Friends of Mine, Morrissey’s 1993 recording with Greg Brown, also received a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. Brown’s song, “Fishing With Bill” was about his friend, who also enjoyed fly fishing. Morrissey’s latest recording, Come Running (2007), was a collaboration with Billy Conway of Morphine and Dave Alvin. In 1992, Morrissey joined with the late Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham on Inside.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut on Nov. 25, 1951, Morrissey grew up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, bought his first guitar at age 13, and performed in a jug band during high school. After briefly studying literature at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, he hitchhiked across the country before settling in rural New Hampshire. Despite his lack of a college degree, Morrissey was quite literate. His songs – many of which focus on ordinary people and are laced with small-town, hardscrabble New England imagery – reflect that. While most of them are serious and empathetic in nature, he had a gift for infusing his often somewhat depressing songs with a keen eye for detail and delivering them in his quivering, raspy voice with a wry, often acerbic touch of humor. Better-known for his lyrics than his guitar licks as he himself acknowledged in one of his songs, Morrissey’s melodies tended to be understated, yet complementary. Stephen Holden, a music critic for The New York Times, once wrote that “Mr. Morrissey’s songs have the force of poetry – a terseness, precision of detail and a tone of laconic understatement that relates his lyrics to the fiction of writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.”
Morrissey also wrote a critically acclaimed, best-selling novel entitled Edson (Random House/Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), while a second novel, Imaginary Runner, was recently completed. He was said to be working on his memoirs at the time of his death.
Reflecting on his personal struggles with depression and alcohol, Morrissey posted the following on his website in 2009:
“Most everybody knows that I’ve had some rough sledding for the last few years including my well known battle with the booze. A couple of years ago I was diagnosed as bipolar and I am on medication for depression but sometimes the depression is stronger than the medication. When the depression hits that badly I can’t eat and I can barely get out of bed. Everything is moving in the right direction now and throughout all of this I have continued to write and write and write. I now have enough songs for 2 new albums and I am very much looking forward to getting back in the studio. My health is better than it has been in a long time. I look forward to getting back on the road and seeing familiar faces and old friends who have stuck by me.”
Gil Bliss, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, concluded his June 26 obituary as follows: “Mr. Morrissey’s legion of fans and friends would find it poetic justice if he were now enjoying the fruits of the afterlife, as described in his song “Letter from Heaven,” from his album Night Train (1993).”
And me, I couldn’t be happier. The service here is fine. They’ve got dinner ready at half-past nine. And I’m going steady with Patsy Cline. And just last night in a bar room, I bought Robert Johnson a beer. Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here.Tribute concerts are expected to take place around what would have been Bill Morrissey’s 60th birthday in the late fall.
Click on this link to view a YouTube video of Morrissey performing his poignant and timeless song “Birches” at the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead, Massachusetts in February 2009.
Editor’s Note: For more information on Bill Morrissey, read Richard Cuccaro’s profile piece that appeared in the June 2008 issue of Acoustic Live! in New York City & Beyond. http://www.acousticlive.com/acoustic_live/June_2008.html