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We are the music makers: BILL MORRISSEY, a novel in three verses and a chorus

BILL MORRISSEY, a novel in three verses and a chorus

By Norman Warwick

Bill Morrissey: photograph by Hervé Oudet

Unless you have bought any of his dozen or so albums you probably won´t have heard of Bill Morrissey. I thought for many years that there only three people in the UK who knew of his work.

I had ´discovered´ him through Phil Gallagher, a guy I got talking to at some gig or other and who then invited me to his 40th birthday celebration, which turned out to be just me and him chatting about music whilst enjoying a wonderful meal his wife had cooked for us. As I said thanks and farewell to Phil Gallagher at the end of this strange but friendly meeting, he pressed three C90 cassettes into my hand, and said ´have a listen. This guy´s good !´

Strangely, a few years previously my wife had cooked a dinner for me and Gary Hall and Michael Weston King, (then both Stormkeepers) whilst we talked about obscure (in the UK) American songwriters.

Phil Gallagher was right. Those two cassettes led to me collecting all of Morrissey´s work for several years, even as I convinced myself that only three people on our side of the Atlantic had ever heard of him: Phil who made the Bill Morrissey compilations for me who then bought up the artist´s back-catalogue, and my mate Rob McKee who received copies from me, because I could trust that he, with his discerning musical taste would share my high opinion of them.

Imagine, then, my surprise when only a few days ago, whilst researching something else entirely, I came across a piece on-line called Bill Morrissey: Folk´s Literate Songwriter, penned by Scott Alarik at https://www.billmorrissey.com/scott-alariks-performing-songwriter-interview

The piece had previously been published in Performing Songwriter magazine in 1994 and began by saying, ´No songwriter has ever got quite the press attention that Bill Morrissey had. Many got more, to be sure, than the New England native, whose career had been a classic slow build. Some, though not too many, got more effusive praise, but Morrissey’s austere, brilliantly crafted ballads, vividly human song-sketches and smartly silly ditties garnered a different sort of plaudit´.

Raymond Carver, writer and poet

Like any competent writer of his generation, Bill Morrissey´s discography is inevitably compared to sixties and seventies folk performers. In his case, it was most often to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and John Prine. Comparisons are made, though, not only with fellow song-writers but also to novelists like Raymond Carver and poets like Robert Frost. The rather unmusical word “literate” crops up all the time in critiques of his work. Rolling Stone praised him as ´a true naturalist storyteller … conveying wisdom with absolute economy and focused fire.´ The Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix  each praised his ´novelist’s eye´ for detail. Entertainment Weekly said his writing was ´as evocative as black-and-white photographs´ before flatly calling him ´the best folk songwriter working today.´

I was already impressed by Alarik´s piece, as it was obvious he was not only a real fan of Bill Morrissey, but was also able (and willing) to share his love of the artist´s work with the wider world.

He had even gained access to the song-writer and much of the rest of his article was based on an interview between the two.

´It was kind of what I was hoping for all along´, Morrissey said, speaking of his frequent comparisons to fiction writers. ´I think I’ve been influenced by fiction more than anything else, more than songwriters or poetry. I guess a lot of what I’m trying to do is the same thing they are doing. I want to use words well.

What I really strive for is no excess. I try to say exactly what I mean, say it in a believable way, and get out. I never try to write down to the listener, I think the listener has a brain and can understand. It’s the old axiom of showing, not telling. That’s what good fiction does, that’s what good lyrics do. There are certain things you don’t have to tell, that are implied because of the situation, the condition or the scene. And if you do say it, you’re just stepping on your own toes, you’re over-writing.

I worry a lot about that, about overloading, gilding the lily. You can actually become rococo; you know, too much information, overstating. I guess that probably started with listening to Mississippi John Hurt, how he would sometimes not sing a line, just play it. You realize certain things can be said with just the music, and my whole approach is to keep everything as spare as possible.´

That observation was also made in a tribute song by Tom Paxton called Did You Hear john Hurt? Paxton referred to songs like Candy Man and Creole Belle which perfectly illustrate Boll Morrissey´s point.

As many fiction writers also say, Morrissey finds his characters fleshing out to the point that they often take over the storyline. He is so intent on making them believable that they can alter his original vision of the song.

´It’s like a Polaroid being developed, and suddenly you realize, Oh, that’s what he looks like, that’s what kind of a guy he is. My characters fool me. I don’t know who they are when I start out with just a vague idea.

A lot of times, halfway through a song, I’ll go ‘whoa, wait a second, he wouldn’t do that.’ Which is really a drag when you’ve got a great rhyme for what he wouldn’t do.´

I agree, as I read the article with Alarik´s observation that it is the simple, so-real moments and telling details in Morrissey’s songs which so often invite comparisons to fiction writers and make his work so convincing and powerful.

His characters are believable, and therefore memorable. They include a man watching his home— and whole life— burning to the ground, who absently focuses on trying to keep his cigarette dry in the night mist. Alarik also reminds us that, in Birches, Bill Morrissey turns the simple act of deciding between stoking a fire with fast-burning birch or the slower, longer-lasting oak into a brilliant consideration of love’s wild but fleeting passions versus it’s cooler, steadier fires.

Even in his buoyant, whimsical songs, Alarik identifies Bill Morrissey´s  keen and clear word-sculpting: “I drink for ballast, I sing for fun/ and I love my baby when her hair’s undone,” he sings in the gently sexy, giddy love song Ellen’s Tune. In Cold, Cold Night, a devotional love song set against a stark winter landscape, he sings “A maple branch clicks up above you/ the mailbox leans in the snow/ the light on her face from the grocery behind you/ tells you she’s one you can never let go.”

I am reminded, though amidst all this talk of sculpted words that in Married Man, a wry, beautiful song about what we give up for domesticity, Morrissey says, in what purports to be an autobiographical tone, that  he spends his days at home, writing ´idiot-verse´. Of course, the song is actually one of Morrissey´s occasional collaborations, this time with Cormac McCarthy, the wonderfully laconic author of novels like All The Pretty Horses. 

That is another reminder that Alarik is right that Bill Morrissey was pleased by the attention he received from novelists and short-story writers themselves.

Robert Olmsted actually wrote him into one of his novels and wrote of Morrissey, ´To me, he is New England’s own bluesman—not hot and humid delta blues, but deep snow and sharp pine blues.´

Woody Guthrie

That pleased Morrissey because it came from a novelist he respected, but also because, after all, he was a folk singer. His musical roots were very important to him, and he wanted people to know how deeply they reached into the fertile earth of traditional blues and the populist troubadour traditions of Woody Guthrie.

´I would never call myself a bluesman, you know, but I did learn how to fingerpick listening to John Hurt and Skip James,´ he told Alarik. ´So there’s a little of that in my music, not consciously but because it’s the way I learned it. I think the similarity is there in terms of subject matter and feeling, too. A lot of these people I write about are down and out; it’s just the northern version of down and out. The emotion is still the same, and I’m just expressing it as honestly as I can, which is exactly what the guys in the delta were doing.´

Robert Johnson

Bill Morrissey added that his economy of words owed as much to folk tradition, too. Speaking of the master of the Delta blues, who Morrissey has written into two songs, he said, ´Robert Johnson’s lyrics were just killer, great, sparse, to the point and evocative. The emotion comes charging right through and, again, he doesn’t tell you, he shows you; he makes you feel it. That’s a hard thing to do. It’s so much easier to just tell people how they’re supposed to feel. But even if you show them, you have to do it in a way they feel. That’s the object of the game.´

As recently as earlier in this summer of 2020, Bob Dylan has also brought us reminders of Robert Johnson, and his supposed deal with the devil, in his lyrics telling a history of the twentieth century, Murder Most Foul. In our ´Dylan Festival´ that we ran from Monday 27th July until Friday 31st July, Sidetracks & Detours also reviewed one or two of the plethora of books written about Johnson. It might be true to say, though, that Bill Morrissey tells the life of the blues man as vividly in a few short lines of lyric than any author does in a four hundred page tome.

As I continue reading Alarik´s observations I am impressed by the journalist´s perceptions of Bill Morrissey´s work and how honestly he expresses his perspectives. The characters Bill brings to life., Alarik says, are often honest, simple folk struggling with the hard-scrabble life of northern New England; doing their best but no match for brute circumstance.

Love holds out the hope of redemptive grace—or at least quiet release from grinding daily life—but often withers with age, sags beneath the weight of lives that cannot outrun, outwork or outfight careless fate.

On stage, Morrissey was a laid-back delight. His voice was a deep, deceptively melodic growl that has been fondly called “wrinkled.” His guitar is spare, pulsing and pretty, anchored so firmly to his clear-cut melodies and austere lyrics that the deftness of his style escapes many.

Speaking of his uniquely leathery vocal style, Morrissey told Alarik that ´Luckily, I was such a bad singer I couldn’t imitate anybody. I was just ready to buy a note any way I could. If I could have bribed my way to a b-flat, I would have done it. I had to find a way to get the songs over, and listened particularly to people who had funky voices—like the way Dave Van Ronk can do a Joni Mitchell song; how a rough voice can convey something like that. And that’s where whatever style I have now comes from´.

It should be said that even through the hundreds of tracks on shuffle on my car sound system Bill Morrissey´s voice is one of the most immediately identifiable and gently demanding

People in the States who had become fans by hearing his songs on record or radio often came to his shows braced for a rich but chill evening. They were invariably happily surprised by what his early New England fans valued as much, if not a little more, than his song-writing. Morrissey was a very funny man, generously sprinkling his shows with sharp asides, shrewd topical barbs and a wise, inspired silliness. His sure, droll showmanship was a prize hard-won during years of playing beat-up bars and timber-rough taverns. from Portsmouth  New Hampshire to frozen northern Maine.

He described the humour set amidst his largely serious songs as ´like the comic relief in a horror movie´. He said it was developed purely as self-defence. ´In the beginning, I didn’t have a lot of songs, and they weren’t very good, and I didn’t do covers. So when people screamed, “Hey, what’s your day job?’ I started heckling back. I’d do a lot of improv stuff about what was going on around the club.

I realized that, even if you weren’t the greatest musician, if you could entertain people, they’d hire you back. It became a way to break it up between the serious songs, because I’m really top-heavy with serious stuff. I realized that if I could relax people, let them laugh a little bit, they’d be more receptive to the next serious song. And I just like making people laugh.´

r Curiously enough for someone so applauded for his lyrical intelligence, literate imagery and contemporary writing, Morrissey’s first Grammy nomination came in 1994 in the Best Traditional Folk category for his lovely, front-porch-friendly collaboration of folk and cover songs with fellow songwriter Greg Brown called Friend of Mine. It actually contains few truly traditional songs, but increasingly Morrissey was becoming something of an advocate for the oft-neglected American folk song. In what he sees as an increasingly pop-centred songwriter scene, he wants people to know that he is part of the folk tradition. It was for that reason he signed the notes to his breakthrough album Inside by Bill Morrissey, folksinger. And that zeal fired his work on Friend of Mine.

Coleman Hawkins

After sternly denying he was getting soap-boxy, Morrissey said, ´I think it’s very important for musicians to know where the music came from. I mean, you’re just part of a long line in a constantly evolving form. I guess I just started seeing some of the younger musicians not paying attention and not curious. To me, that was just baffling. I mean, Charlie Parker could quote from Coleman Hawkins, he didn’t spring out of thin air, and he was the best. The people who are the best always have that background; they know what came before. It gives you perspective, depth.

And it shows in some of the younger songwriters’ music. You can hear it, there’s nothing but pop influences, the feeling and commitment are in danger of not being there. You’re not necessarily inclined to believe what’s being said—which is not to say that if you listen to Dock Boggs, everybody’s going to believe what you say, but you can feel it when somebody knows their music, and is drawing on something larger than the last five years.

I’m in it for the long haul, and I think if I hadn’t had that attitude in the very beginning, I might have gotten out. I mean, I have nothing against making some money, and I don’t mind the attention when I get it, but that’s not the goal. There are some people whose goal is to be a star, and that’s an odd goal, I think. My goal has always been to write well, to have the next song be better than the last one.´

So Mr. Alarik´s piece on the late Bill Morrissey served the artists far better than did my alternative of keeping his music to myself as a secret pleasure that continues to this day. Those couple of C90 tapes from Phil Gallagher led me to a catalogue I will enjoy for the rest of adult life, and even to a couple of Bill Morrissey songs I would eventually record. This artist, who I so wanted to think of as an unknown writer, has died, as long ago as 2011 and an article  long ago published on-line by Scott Alarik has revealed to me that throughout Bill Morrissey´s life time thousands of fans were enjoying and sharing his poetry and music and sense of humour and I was missing out.

Don´t make the same mistake I did. Instead, seek out all the Bill Morrissey music you can. There are more than a dozen albums available, and you will find a full discography at

http://www.mysongwriters.com/BM/SongsofBillMorrissey.pdf

and this  really excellent site will point you in the right direction.

Then, try Spotify or whatever and visit songs about that Closed Down Mill in that Small Town On The River we´ve all seen from time to time, and as you drive there play that game of Car And Driver. You´ll probably see a girl who Married For Money driving a little red chevy on the three lane, as you head for The Hills Of Tuscany, leaving behind the guys who work on the Night Shift.

Listen to the beauty of As Long As The Sun or Ashes, Grain And Sandthrough the hours of The Last Furlough. And listen out and look for Handsome Molly, for the most beautiful version of this song you will ever hear.

C90 cassettes are a thing of the past, now, but those ten songs would make a wonderful introduction to the extensive songbook of Bill Morrissey.

So, please, put them on a playlist, and share it with friends !  

2 replies
  1. PETER PEARSON
    PETER PEARSON says:

    As ever Norman. A wonderful article on a very neglected artist. I came to know of Bill Morrissey via Eric Taylor who wrote a song about him called “Bill” -featured on his Studio 10 album. In concert Eric prefaced the song with a long monologue recalling touring with Bill and the personal problems which contributed to his early death. There is a youtube video capturing Eric giving this performance in the UK.

    Reply
    • Norman Warwick
      Norman Warwick says:

      HI Peter
      so good to hear from you and to know you follow Sidetracks & Detours from time to time. I was just about packing upo for the week but now you´ve got me started on writing an article about Eric Taylor. I´ll check out your recommended album and You Tube and reference the source. What you say is interesting, and proves tht no matter how much we think we know, there is always more to learn, but that´s the fun og it isn´t it. I guess you are as short of concerts over there as we are here. For five years we have been immersed in a vibrant, free art scene with a wealth of talent, but of course all that got locked down. This week, though, i have just received invites to a couple press only live events which I´m hoping as one step back towards where we were.
      I know how much you know your stuff, so if ever you feel you want to write a piece, drop anything to me at normanwarwick55@gmail.com and i will always to use it and attribute it fully. Take care bud

      Reply

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