“Night Shift” was probably the first song I ever heard Bill Morrissey sing, the first time I went to hear him at the Idler in Harvard Square. It was around 1981, and he typically used this semi-autobiographical picture of dead-end life in a fading northern mill town to open his first set. He would do it quietly, like he was picturing the situation, and when he finished there would generally be a hushed silence, then people would begin to applaud and he would grin and say, “I like to start off with something perky, to get everybody in a party mood.”
I’ve written about how I met Bill and the shock of seeing him perform for the first time in my post for “Small Town on the River,” which in those days was generally agreed to be his masterpiece — an opinion I haven’t changed, despite the decades of songwriting that followed. It was another Newmarket song, honed on what northern New England musicians called the Amy-Shanty circuit, because of the regularity with which barroom audiences would request “Amie,” by Pure Prairie League (the women’s choice), and Jonathan Edwards’s “Lay Around the Shanty” (the guys’) — I don’t know if Bill invented the term, but I heard other people use it as well, and it was accurate: I never got an “Amie” request, probably because I was insufficiently romantic-sounding, but every time I played a New Hampshire bar gig some guy requested “Shanty.”
I don’t know if Bill ever worked in a shoe mill, but he certainly drank with a lot of guys who did, and they turned up at his shows and drank harder when he sang songs like this. By the time I knew him, in the early 1980s, the Timberland factory was closed or closing, and apparently the buildings have since been turned into condos. It was a long time ago, and Bill was in his early thirties, ten years older than me. He looked a lot younger — almost like a teenager — but his voice was craggy enough to convey the sense of life passing him by.
We met at the Idler, a terrific bar where he played regularly and I opened for Paul Geremia and John Koerner — we met when he came to one of those gigs, on Dave Van Ronk’s advice, and then I went to a bunch of his. The Idler closed in 1983 and Bill shifted from playing the Idler to playing Passim — from a bar full of folks who liked to drink and listen to blues, to the coffeehouse where Susan Vega and Nanci Griffith would soon be holding court. Those were significantly different scenes, and in Passim I’d sometimes hear hisses at the line in this song’s second verse about the wives who “run their families but make it look like they do what they are told.” Having grown up in a Cambridge feminist household, I had my own misgivings about that line, but one night I happened to be at one of Bill’s shows with a friend who’d grown up in a small town near the New Hampshire border and when he sang that line she whispered, “He really understands this stuff.” I assume Jack Kerouac would have agreed, and could have been one of the guys calling Bill names in French. It wasn’t a world I knew, but I think Bill felt more at home there than he ever would again.
(About the French part: people unfamiliar with northern New England may be surprised at how much of the older working class population is French, and it was not something I was consciously aware of as a kid, but when I think back, a lot of the North Cambridge kids I thought of as Irish — their families were Catholic and lived in the same neighborhoods — had names like Leger, Benoit, Martel, and Versoy.)
Anyway… now I’m more than twice as old as Bill was then, and he’s been gone for years, and I don’t know if many younger singers are even aware of his work — in particular the early work, when he was still very much a regional writer. I still do “Oil Money” pretty regularly and others from time to time. I’ve posted a bunch of them, with memories of those times: “Small Town on the River,” “Soldier’s Pay,” “Texas Blues,” and funny ones like “Candlepin Swing,” “King Jelly’s Good Morning Irene Song,” and “My Baby and Me.” I’ll get around to more of them eventually, including a couple that may no longer exist outside my memory. I miss him and still love a lot of his work, especially that early stuff from when he was a bar singer, writing for and about the folks who worked in those small New England towns.