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Working-Class Troubadour: Speaking with Folksinger Bill Morrissey's Mother About His Life and Legacy

Marion Morrissey sheds light on her son's development into a legendary political songwriter.

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But it was in Acton, Massachusetts, where Bill started his career in music. While in secondary school there, he developed an interest in music and art. Following the recommendation of a teacher, he took art courses at a school in Boston. "But it was just a temporary thing,” says Morrissey. “It wasn't the love of his life. When he was 13, 14, he bought his first guitar.”

The rest is history. "Bill was into music and taught himself how to play. He would spend every penny he had on something musical,” she says. “He got into Bob Dylan, and any concert that he could afford to go to in Boston, he'd go. It was such that he practically lived through his music.”

Many of his songs focus on the struggles of mill workers and the working class, and Morrissey attributes it to his experience living in a mill town in Massachusetts, after he left home. He took a number of odd jobs—dispatcher for the police and fire in New Hampshire, an Alaskan fishing boat, a mill in New Hampshire.

"I think deep in his heart he had to experience these things to be able to put them on paper or in music,” says Morrissey. “You can't just pull things out of the sky when you don't know a darn thing about them. But over and above experiencing it, he had a tremendous imagination, which added to all that. That's the way I felt about it. This is why I felt he had such a marvelous mind."

But Bill Morrissey’s beliefs were shaped by the progressive way his mother and father thought, as well. "My family, and my husband's whole family, we're all liberal Democrats, and I've always felt Bill leaned that way,” says Morrissey. “I think living with these people in mills, and working in mills… finding how difficult it was to live in a life like that, he understood the people who lived there. People who came back from the war, who had no jobs. His leaning was toward people who could use help. Not his help necessarily, but maybe publicity. Maybe that's why he wrote the way he did."

But his mother also attributes Bill's success to his motivation. "What he had was a drive and the ambition,” she says. And you know what? Never never bragged about it. Never said 'Hey this is going to be terrific, wait until you hear it.' He wasn't that type of individual. I think that's why people liked him, I really do. He treated everybody equally, that's what I love about him."

Beautifully simple seems to be the hallmark of the Morrissey family's life, though like Bill's songs, their happiness was tinged with sadness.

When Bill lost his college deferment for the draft in the Vietnam War, “that's the one time that i really felt that there was a crisis in our family," says Morrissey. With low draft numbers, Bill and and his brother would have been among the first to go fight.

But Marion Morrissey, against the war and unwilling to send her kids to die in Vietnam, worked to keep them out of the draft. Her first son, John, joined the National Guard. Bill, after dropping out of Plymouth State, moved briefly back home, before deciding to transfer to community college. "He came back, took the report card, showed it to his father and he had three As and a B,” says Morrissey, “and he said 'Dad, I can’t go to college, I don't want it. I'm quitting.'" Eventually, Bill received a letter saying his district had filled its quota, and Bill wouldn't be drafted. "He escaped Vietnam," says Morrissey. "I attribute it to my prayers, I don't know, but he didn't have to go to Canada, and I didn't have to go with him! I’ll tell you, it was a dreadful period."

 
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