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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.

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."

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