Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bill Morrissey 1951-2011

Bill Morrissey performing in 2010.
I woke up this morning to the very sad news that Bill Morrissey, one of the finest singer-songwriters of my generation (and a marvellous interpreter of Mississippi John Hurt songs), passed away yesterday.

I don’t know any details – apparently he was on a stopover in Georgia on his way north after some tour dates – but Bill has been in fragile health for a number of years. Bill did not look at all well when I last saw him in 2005 when he was in Montreal to perform for the Wintergreen Concert Series, but I’d heard he was recently feeling better; that he was overcoming alcoholism and depression, and Internet reports had him sounding good at recent concerts.

(Addendum, July 26, 2011: Autopsy results indicate Bill died from complications of heart disease.)

Mike Regenstreif & Bill Morrissey in 2005.
I’ve been a great admirer of Bill’s music since the LP version of his first album, Bill Morrissey, came out in 1984 (he later re-recorded the album for the CD release). We first met at a folk festival around that time and I enjoyed talking with him whenever our paths crossed over the years. He was twice my guest on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show and he was among the most-played artists over the run of the show. In 2002, I hosted a workshop called Short Stories That Rhyme with Bill, Ron Hynes and Cliff Eberhardt on the mainstage of the Ottawa Folk Festival.

Bill was also a very fine novelist. I loved Edson, his first novel published in 1996, about a musician in a New Hampshire mill town (not unlike the town depicted in his classic song, “Small Town on the River”). He'd completed a second novel, Imaginary Runner, that has not yet been published.

Life in New Hampshire, where Bill spent many years, was a theme that ran through many of his songs.

Bill’s novelist’s skills as a storyteller were reflected both in his songs and in the engaging way he talked on stage between songs.

Bill leaves behind a substantial body of superb work. While many of Bill’s songs were sad and serious, he also wrote some that were very funny and, today, I want to think that he’s somehow experiencing the heaven he once wrote about:

“And me, I couldn’t be happier
The service here is fine
They’ve got dinner ready at half-past nine
And I’m going steady with Patsy Cline
And just last night in a bar room
I bought Robert Johnson a beer
Yeah, I know, everybody’s always surprised to find him here

It’s a great life 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.”  --Bill Morrissey, “Letter from Heaven”

--Mike Regenstreif


  1. Lovely remembrance Mike - thank you!
    Phyllis Barney

  2. Thanks to Tim Lynch for noticing the typo in the original posting. I typed 1994 as the date for Bill's first LP. I meant to say 1984. It's now corrected in the body of the post.

  3. Thank you, Mike.


  4. Thanks, Mike for the nice piece on our friend Bill Morrissey. Anyone who caught one of his shows knows how much he put into his songs, and stories. He wrote from a deeply New Englander point of view... times could be hard & Winters long. But, he always made me laugh, too. He will be missed.

  5. Thank You For The Wonderful Writing of a Wonderful Person and Wonderfully Talented, Wonderfully Warm Real Person. A One of a Kind. He Lives on in Our Life Forever with his Music, Novels, and Videos.

    Peter Mathewson

  6. We interviewed Bill in the early nineties at the community station in Salt Lake City--KRCL, which played a lot of contemporary folk. My colleague, Tony Polychronis, promoted Bill's dates in Utah. Bill was a gentle man with a wry sense of humor, and he leaves behind a fine body of work. I especially loved his self-titled album on Philo, re-recorded for CD in '91. I'll remember him.

  7. I saw Bill the first time at the Stone Church in Newmarket NH...dozens of times after at various places, my favorite gigs at The Idler in Harvard Sq where he made me laugh, made me cry, and made me wiser as a young man trying to figure out big city life after growing up in a town much like Newmarket but further north in NH....I will miss him terribly and wish Ellen and his family all the best...thanks...Bill Patterson, Walpole NH

  8. We were at UNH in the mid to late 70s living in Dover and Newmarket. We fell in love with Bill, and Greig too on his bass, right from the start at The Stone Church and even Sneaky Pete's I think. Once we moved down to Dorchester and Cambridge we caught Bill's shows at Passims, the Idler, Nighstage, (anyone else remember these?), and later at Somerville Theater (got Edson there) and Jimmy Tingle's club. We always talked, caught up, remembered the Newmarket days, and bought Bill's CDs. Bruce and Grieg worked together so we stayed in touch that way until poor Grieg died from cancer about ten years ago. Bill was really so Irish -- like a shanachie who could take his listeners on a journey, casting a spell over the room that brought you right into the story.

    We will miss Bill so much. He was a special soul - he made us all go deeper while never forgetting to reach for joy and laughter.

    Rest in peace Bill. Love, Susan Leslie and Bruce Pritchard, Cambridge MA

  9. I just heard the sad news. You will be missed, Bill. Rest in peace.

  10. I am a big fan of bill. I missed my best hero wonderful talented personality.

  11. In the 1990's I hosted a syndicated performance show on Public Radio called Rural Route 3. We brought in most of the era's leading folk/songwriter acts and recorded them in front of a live audience. One of my very favorite performers was Bill Morrissey.

    I'd enjoyed his music for years and had covered one his songs on the show. His recording with the Robert Johnson song on it had just come out and he was on a roll. His performance of the song that evening put chills down my spine. And that voice; it spoke of the ages.

    I always ended the show with a finale song and would invite the headline performers to join in if they wanted to. Unaware of Bill's love of Mississippi John Hurt, I had selected Miss. John's "Louis Collins" as the finale piece. It just seemed to fit the mood of the show. Bill immediately agreed to join in and we ran through the song once before the show. Right away I knew something special was going to happen.

    The performance was magical. I remember thinking "I'd love to just sit and have a beer and hang out with guy for a while".

    Via con Dios, Bill.

  12. Just heard the sad news - I knew Bill in High School, in Wethersfield CT. We followed him - he was our celebrity! Your music always made me smile and remember our times together. Peace my brother.
    Ellen Graber Donohue