Bill Morrissey, 59, folk troubadour

Posted: July 26, 2011

Bill Morrissey, 59, longtime folksinger, songwriter, and veteran of the coffee-house circuit throughout the country, died Saturday, July 23, in Dalton, Ga., of extensive heart disease.

Mr. Morrissey lived in New Hampshire and was a frequent performer in coffee shops and folk venues, especially in the Northeast. His music ranged from tough portraits of New England milltown life ("Small Town on the River") to good-hearted examinations of love, as in his popular tune "Birches," in which a woman dances in the light of a birch fire after her man, who prefers to burn the longer-lasting oak, has gone to bed:

And she stood up in the heat. She twirled around the room.

And the shadows they saw nothing but a young girl on her honeymoon.

And she knew the time it would be short; soon the fire would start to fade.

She thought of heat.

She thought of time.

She called it an even trade.

At their best, his lyrics and storytelling reminded listeners of the work of writers such as Raymond Carver and John Steinbeck.

Born in Hartford, Conn., in 1951, Mr. Morrissey studied the great folk artists of the 1960s, as well as the American music embodied by bluesmen Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, country singer Hank Williams, and Kansas City jazz and swing musicians like Count Basie and Lester Young.

He appeared often at the Stone Church in Newmarket, N.H., working there as a janitor and then doing gigs in the late 1970s. He released 10 albums from 1984 to 2007, including an album with Greg Brown in 1993. His debut, Bill Morrissey, received quick recognition for its distinctive stories, characters, and lyrics, as well as for his deep, soft growl of a voice, which later became endearingly graveled.

His standout performance at the 1985 Newport Folk Festival and albums such as North (1986), Standing Eight (1989), and Night Train (1993) continued his legacy. He was known to work assiduously on his singing and songwriting. He was nominated twice for Grammy awards, for his 1993 collaboration with Brown, Friend of Mine, and his 1999 album, Songs of Mississippi John Hurt.

As his attention to lyrics suggests, he was also a published fiction writer and part of the creative-writing scene in the Northeast. His novel Edson (1996), about a musician in a New Hampshire mill town, drew critical praise. Chapters from a second novel, Imaginary Runner, were published as separate short tales; Runner was rumored to have been completed shortly before his death.

In fragile health in recent years, Mr. Morrissey had battled depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism. He passed away in a hotel room in Georgia, according to his manager, Ellen Karas. He was on a stopover en route home after a series of appearances.

Over the years, Mr. Morrissey played often at the Tin Angel and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. In 1970, he moved to in Lansdale, Pa., with his family. His mother, Marion E. Morrissey, resides in Lansdale; a brother Thomas lives in Harleysville, and another brother, Joseph, in Medford, N.J.


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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