Singer/songwriter and Tamworth resident Bill Morrissey has died at the age of 59. He was born in Hartford Connecticut on November 25, 1951 and died July 23, 2011 in Georgia.
Bill recorded 10 albums, received two Grammy nominations and four star reviews in
Rolling Stone Magazine, and received exceptional reviews in nearly every other major national publication. Stephen Holden, for the New York Times, wrote, "Mr. Morrissey's songs have the force of poetry...a terseness, precision of detail and a tone of laconic understatement that relate his lyrics to the fiction of writers like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford" He is also the author of the novel "Edson" (Random House/Alfred A. Knopf 1996) which was recently translated in French and the recently completed "Imaginary Runner."
He was influenced by the American country blues of Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson, the country music of Hank Williams, the Kansas City sounds of Count Basie and Lester Young, and the New York folk songwriters of the 1960s.
He was a resident of Newmarket, New Hampshire during his college age years and was a frequent visitor to the Stone Church, a popular music venue for budding musicians. His first album (Bill Morrissey, 1984) is a glimpse at small town mill life, a theme which prevailed in much of his work.
Bill collaborated with other folk icons like Greg Brown (Friend of Mine, 1993) and the late Scottish fiddler, Johnny Cunningham (Inside, 1992). He was proud to collaborate with Billy Conway (Morphine) and Dave Alvin on his latest recording “Come Running” (2007).
In addition to recording, Bill was a popular guest at folk festivals and coffeehouses and a frequent guest on NHPR’s Folk Show.
In 2009 Bill shared his struggles with depression and alcohol on his website:
“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.”
Peterborough Folk Music Society President/Program Director Deb McWethy hosted Bill Morrissey at many PFMS shows and reflected, “Bill was a man who had demons to fight every day of his life. While he was with us he handled them with grace and humor even though through his music and stories we often heard his pain, and also his beautiful words about love and loss and about our place on this earth. My last conversations with him made me want to go to him and give him a hug. At the same time I know in his heart he knew we all loved him. It was his battle and we all gave him what we could; our attendance at his concerts, our standing ovations, booking him at our venues and playing his music for ourselves and our friends. Rest in peace , Bill. Your music carries on forever.”
A posting on Facebook from a fan said, “This is very sad news. One of my favorite songs of all time was about Bill Morrissey - Fishing With Bill ... written by Greg Brown
"I want to go to a good place
with a friend of mine
cast our souls out in the river
and watch the whole deal shine"
Shine on Bill.”
Bill Morrissey’s music will be remembered for its sweet storytelling and sentiment. The song “Birches” is a fan favorite. Bill invites us to peek in while a woman reminisces about her youth while dancing to the shadows of Birch flames in a wood stove as they flicker in the room and her husband sleeps upstairs.
Bill had appearances this summer at Caffe Lena and venues in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. He was excited about his productive songwriting, even while battling his depression. It is unclear at this time what the circumstances were around his death. We do know, from Bill himself, that he wasn’t afraid of dying. His song “Letters from Heaven” (Night Train, 1993) seemed to be written as a reassurance:
‘It’s a great life here in heaven, it’s better than the Bible said, it’s a great life here in heaven, it’s a great life when you’re dead”.
Rest in peace, Bill Morrissey...and thank you.
We paid tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. on The Folk Show with a number of folk songs that were popular during the civil rights movement. We included “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and songs from Odetta, Pete Seeger, Sweet Honey in the Rock and John McCutcheon, all wonderful folk musicians known for inspiring folk audiences and for making listeners like me want to sing along.
One song I included was Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit" based on a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The song is dark, somber and deep. It is a reminder of where we once were as a nation. The third Monday in January is a day to pay tribute to the accomplishments of a great leader and peacemaker. It is also a day to reflect with the knowledge that we need never go back again. As Pete Seeger sang with the Rivertown Kids on his Grammy nominated cd, Tomorrow’s Children, “Take it From Dr. King.”
Is there a doctor in the house? Why, as a matter of fact there is…or was on the most recent Folk Show.
During our fall fund drive we invited listeners who donated $500 dollars or more to join us as guest dj’s on the Folk Show. Alan “Doc”Rogers stepped up!
It was a pleasure to have him at the helm of The Folk Show. There’s no doubt about it. He is a guitar fan. He is also a fine guitarist who has played for over 45 years. He’s played with bands all around the country and now plays regularly at open mics around New England, frequenting guitar camps and farmer’s markets to feed his musical soul He once played a tune for Mississippi John Hurt!
We had a chance to hear a couple of selections from his Aint Dead Yet album and nearly three hours worth of some of Doc’s favorite performers ranging from Merle Travis and Chet Atkins to Loudon Wainwright III and the Bluegrass Gospel Project. He turned us on to the harmonies of the duo Beverly Smith and Carl Jones as well as Grand Ol’ Opry stars, the Delmore Brothers who were country music pioneers in the 30’s. We also heard a couple of Beatles tunes performed by Emmylou Harris and Vassar Clements. Once, on a trip to Cuba, Doc found that the universal language of music began with the Beatles. He had no trouble sitting in with musicians there as long as he had Beatles tunes to play.
Doc and I had great fun talking about our favorites. He said he can’t tell who my favorite musicians are from listening to the Folk Show. I think that is a good thing. The truth is, I have favorites, but they are mixed in with your favorites from week to week.
I hope Doc had a good time at the helm of The Folk Show. If you want to see Doc live and in-person, visit an open mic….and don’t forget your guitar!
OY! Imagine Christine Lavin’s voice, “OY”! Christine Lavin and Don White stopped by recently promoting their new memoirs.
Don’s new book, Memoirs of a C Student, is chock full of stories about his life growing up in Lynn, Massachusetts. It is a wonderful narrative from a boy/man who could have been anyone’s neighbor in Lynn, who dared to give up his day job to become a folk musician. It is steeped in family, almost a companion book to his tunes, “Adolescent Rant”, “Be Sixteen With Me” and “I Know what Love is “ It is poignant, funny and real… the real Don White!
In her book Cold Pizza for Breaokfast, a Mem-wha?, Christine guides us through her life as a folk musician. Before she left the studio a couple of weeks ago, she handed me the audio book. I wonder what people are thinking as I giggle behind the wheel as I listen in my car. I have already cruised through 6 of the 12 cd’s full of stories and songs with some added surprises thrown in.Talk about driveway moments! She tells the story of opening for Joan Rivers at a gig in Miami, a not so great experience for a young folksinging guirtar playing baton twirler. She gives us an insider’s view of the business behind the folk business.
Oh, and the tunes and tunesmiths she knows from her immersion in THE folk clubs in New York. It’s a folksinger’s tell-all. I can’t wait to get to disc 7! OY!
I had a call from someone last night who reported that he had “had a few cocktails.” He went on to declare that he was a member of NHPR and a Republican. When I wasn’t surprised at his declaration, he said, “don’t you think that’s odd?” I told him that “public” radio was for everyone. His answer: “Boy they sure do have YOU trained, don’t they?” My three minute song was ending, so I told my caller that I really needed to get off of the phone so I could get back to my job He said, “You mean you are on the air?” “Yes,” I said, “I’m the host of NHPR’s Folk Show and I’m on the air right now.” “Oh, I hate folkies,” he said, “I grew out of THAT.” I excused myself just as he was launching into his version of a discussion about the Tea Party. I don’t have much to say and little time to actually listen on Sunday evenings. I guess we’ll have to let the music speak for itself.
During our fall fund drive, NHPR’s Folk Show offered a special opportunity to donors. We offered a fun incentive for donors giving $500 dollars or more: an opportunity to be a guest d.j. on The Folk Show. Jeannie Dismukes took us up on our offer and joined us Sunday night as our guest. It was a telling experience for me, because it gave me a bit of a glimpse of who is listening to The Folk Show. I determined that there is no “typical” Folk Show listener. It is a mistake, I think, for anyone, like a consultant, to think they can stereotype our Sunday night listening audience
Jeannie is an airline pilot, originally from California and now living in Newbury, New Hampshire. She travels around the world, so listening to NHPR is not always an easy feat, although she admits, she can listen on the web no matter where she is. Her selections made up much of the first hour of our program. Jeannie likes songs whose lyrics tell a story. That is her understanding of what folk music is.
She had an opportunity to see Catie Curtis at The Folk Show Folk Show a couple of years ago and really enjoyed Catie’s song ”Hey California.”, whose lyrics boast
“In December we pretend that we're moving
We point out places on the map
We look at houses online, we read the L.A. Times
We go out in to the snow and laugh
And when you go to California
They want to know why you'd live back East
When the weather there is cold and the people there are cold
I say the people are why I'll never leave”
There’s a reason Californians, like Jeannie, stick out the cold here in New Hampshire and soon spring will peek out from the snow to remind us all just what those reasons are. Of course, as an airline pilot, Jeannie has ample opportunity to escape the cold blasts we’ve been experiencing when travel calls her away to places like Hong Kong and Mumbai.
Jeannie sent a tune out to her co-workers, “Bald Headed Men” by the Four Bitchin’ Babes. She is a professional woman in a male dominated industry, .so it seemed perfectly fitting to poke a bit of fun at receding hairlines.
Jeannie’s husband is a Michelle Shocked fan so we sent out “Child of Grace” to him. He was listening at home with friends at a special Folk Show listening party in honor of Jeannie’s appearance on our program.
The African American roots trio, Carolina Chocolate Drops are coming to Hanover, so Jeannie picked out “Dixie” from their album Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind, and dedicated it to her mom Dixie who was listening on the web in California.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a show co-piloted by a pilot if we hadn’t played her selection, Vance Gilbert’s “I’ve Got a Plane” from his Unfamiliar Moon album.
It was a real pleasure to have Jeannie in the studio. She’s a really lucky person. Not because she is an airline pilot who hosted the Folk Show, (she earned that), but because last year Jeannie and her husband won the Toyota Prius for participating in the car raffle, an NHPR fundraiser. She said she didn’t believe NHPR staff member Beth Szelog when she called to tell her she had won because her husband never even told her he bought the 50 dollar raffle ticket! Here’s hoping that Jeannie’s luck rubs off on all of us.
Many thanks to my co-pilot, Jeannie Dismukes!
First, let me thank you for the roller skates you left me back when I was 5. They were the best. I loved skating around in our finished basement in those days. Even better was the Monkees album you left. You were so totally cool to me. Well, I’m pretty sure I never thanked you for baby dolls, Barbies, skates, bikes, record albums and stuffed stockings that I was privileged to receive over the years. So, let me take this opportunity to officially, here on the web, thank you for many Christmas miracles ‘Tis the season after all! Well, Santa, I’m hoping for yet another Christmas miracle. See, I’m privileged to be able to provide our NHPR listeners with The Folk Show on Sunday nights. There are a few of us folk dj’s that are carrying on the folk tradition around the state. There’s Shawn in Portsmouth, Jack in Durham and other dj’s at college radio stations around the state, too. There’s Robert nearby with All the Traditions on Vermont Public Radio. But some of our colleagues in Massachusetts have lost their voices, so to speak, Santa, having lost their shows due to changes in direction by their station, WGBH. Radio is like that, Santa. A station and its Board of Trustees evaluates its product and decides what it deems best for the future and for the listeners. The lesson is that we can never take our favorite programs for granted. They need support from listeners before the decision to terminate is made. So when you’re flying over Boston, Santa, it would be great if you leave something extra special for folk hosts Naomi Arenberg and Brad Paul, and blues host Brendan Hogan, too. I’m sure they could use a little holiday miracle. ‘Tis the season after all.
They paved paradise. Well okay, they didn’t quite pave it yet, but I was stunned to see what used to be the Bardwell Farm on route 10 being rolled and flattened to become, I hear, a parking lot for a supermarket. I remember when we’d drive from Keene to Swanzey, past the property once home for many black and white cows. My kids would point and cheer, “The cows are out! The cows are out!!” They had names for the cows, too. “There’s Daddy and Mommy….and Maggie…look, there’s Nana and Lael”, they exclaimed from their back seat stations, giddy with excitement
Dave Mallett’s song “Main Street”, Greg Brown’s “Boomtown”, and Iris Dement’s “Our Town”, in addition to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” all bemoan the changing landscape of our communities.
Another song that brings me pause is Greg Brown’s “Canned Goods”. He paints us a picture with smells of baking bread and the taste of pickles on our tongues with the picture of gram in her apron steaming up the kitchen windows while preserving summer in a mason jar.
As I was picking blueberries the other day I could hear my mom coaching me in the art of blueberry picking. “Gently roll the berry off the bush with this finger and your thumb. If it doesn’t roll off, it’s not ripe yet. Careful, careful…put your bucket right under the berries so you don’t lose them on the ground.” Then she’d smile, teasing, “one for your bucket, one for you.” It was really hard to put every berry in the pail, the luscious and juicy fruit staining my fingertips and teeth. Back in those days, I wasn’t really that interested in berry picking. It was hot. The bugs were biting. It required patience as the pail seemed to take forever to fill one berry at a time.
But now I’m so grateful to have had my mother’s coaching and for those days when the cows were out and the berry bushes loomed over me and my little berry pail. I’m grateful for the twirl and swirl of memories that fill all my senses like the smell of bread baking, the sounds of old songs and the images of black and white cows in a wide-open pasture.
Ours is not the first generation to watch our memories steam-rolled into the future. I’m reminded to savor those memories, just as I’ll savor the blueberry pie made from blueberries picked one blueberry at a time.
My daughter went to see A Prairie Home Companion last weekend at Wolf Trap in Virginia. She got to see the Steele Sisters and Robin and Linda Williams with Garrison Keillor in a Memorial Day special. Seeing the live performance of the show reminded Maggie of home. She phoned to thank me for exposing her to public radio and especially for making A Prairie Home Companion part of our Saturday evening routine. I’m not sure my kids really appreciated our nearly tv-less household when they were younger, so her phone call and reminiscence of those Saturday evenings around the radio warmed me
“I’m grateful”, she said, “that you exposed us to good radio and to good music, Mom.”
PHC may be the only opportunity for some folks to hear gospel or folk music. It may be the only opportunity for our children to hear radio theater. If you haven’t tried it yet, turn off the tube and expose your youngsters to radio. Real radio, that is.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with Patrick, a coworker, about the new Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem cd I received in the mail. His eyes lit up when he spoke about some of his favorite selections in his home music library that were the soundtrack of his youth in Newfoundland. It struck me, as I listened to him, that his passion for the music needed to be shared. So, I brought him in to help me with our St. Patrick's Day feature on The Folk Show. I've invited other folks to do the same. These are people I've bumped into along the way whose passion for Folk music exceeds that of a casual listener We'll give them a voice and give you a glimpse of what feeds your neighbor's folk soul. Our next guest dj will be David Pyles from Nelson, NH. He was responsible for bringing the "Folks in Nelson" series to the town. Next week, Emily Elbert, a relatively new face on the folk music scene will visit us. Tom Rush has planned a visit to the The Folk Show in April. (The guest dj idea was Marek Bennett's brainstorm, born from a dinner conversation with his wife) Thanks, Marek...and thank YOU for tuning us in.