News & Politics

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.

Marion Morrissey’s house, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, is decorated with small-town charm—a wood-paneled television den, framed embroidery, fall colors. She carries over a huge box of magazines and newspapers she has collected about her son, Bill Morrissey, the musician and author—some of them in perfect condition and as old as 1990—and sits down on the couch, amazed at how well-loved her son was.

"Look at this one," she says. "Rolling Stone. Four stars." Morrissey is a proud mother, and she should be: her son was a great speaker of the people, and he touched many hearts with his working-class ballads and humor. But she is also in mourning: Bill Morrissey died on July 23, 2011, of a massive heart attack.

"It's been a month now," she says. "I'm all cried out. When people ask 'how you doing?' I just say fine. The funeral, the hard part, is over. The rest of it, I'll live with for the rest of my life. The memories, I will live with for the rest of my life." Her voice is endearingly sweet, almost squeaky, like the grandmotherly narrator of a movie. But when she gets excited, her tone changes, and loud laughs erupt from her small body. She is 88, and she walks all around the neighborhood every day, but she does not own a computer and ignores the telephone the several times it rings.

It is fitting that she is the mother of the beloved Bill Morrissey. His music told the tales of humanity, colored with working-class struggles, dark love affairs, and humorous takes on society and politics. In the song “Car and Driver,” one of Marion's favorites, he discusses how he can tell the driver of a car by its make. To him, society was a hard-working struggle, but in it he found art and happiness, and an outlet from his bipolar disorder and alcoholism.

"He was the middle son,” says Marion, “He was three years younger than his older brother, and he was adorable, just like the other two. It was November 25, 1951, two days after Thanksgiving. He was beautifully born, seven pounds and seven ounces."

Bill spent his early years in Easton, Massachusetts. "It was a magnificent time because it was small-town living, wonderful neighbors, and I loved it there," she says. "Joe and Bill, his older brother, went to Catholic school at the time. And he was not quite five years old."

Here’s how Marion Morrissey’s baby grew up to be the artist that Smart Magazine called "a white bluesman, the likes of whom we haven't heard from since Hank Williams stopped riding his horse onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry." He lived simply, but was well-loved. He was raised to respect humanity, and he grew up with his eyes wide open to the human condition.

"In those days, times were different," Marion says. She hired a "small-town, living taxi driver" to bring her boys home for lunch so she could check up on them during the school day. She says Bill and his brother Joe laughed about how happy they were when their baby brother Tom was born -- it put an end to teasing from the girl down the street.

"It was these minor things, and yet the boys still talked about it. It was a wonderful, wonderful time. I would've been content to stay there and bring up my family in that small town, not only for the charm, but the wonderful people who lived there." They moved to Connecticut when the boys were still kids. People valued the simple life, she says: "Good neighbors, good friends. It was where my two older boys became interested in sports, Little League. Bill was exceptional. He was the catcher on the team, knew the game inside out."

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."

Bill's near-draft was not the first time war came up in their family. Bill's father served two years in the Pacific in the Navy, and Bill wrote a tribute to him called "A Victory At Sea." Marion's husband never spoke about the war, but he would quietly watch the show "Victory at Sea," narrated by Winston Churchill, every Sunday.

Like much of Bill's music, the song “Victory at Sea” is poignant, one more that Marion can use to visit her son. But "Birches" is among her favorite of Bill's songs, and following his death, the lyrics to Casey, Illinois are especially touching. The lyrics are, "I can't call you late at night anymore,” she explains. "And every time he plays it, I cry. It's very touching….It's just that right now he can't."

But while he can't call, he can sing to his mother, who will listen to him like she used to stay up late, listening to XPN, hoping to hear her son's voice.

Kristen Gwynne is a freelance writer and an editorial assistant at AlterNet.