From a very early age, Howie Morris was part of the Morris Quartet; along with his brother, John, and sisters, Grace and Ida, they entertained in Highland costume at the first “St. Andrew’s Concert” staged in the Alexander Hall by Father Ewan MacDonald where they thrilled the partisan audience with their renditions of ”Scots Wha Hae” and other Celtic airs.
When the school boards of Glengarry, through the Ontario Ministry of Education, began to promote the importance of music in the schools, Alexandria was chosen as the centre for Music Festivals. Dr. Fenwick of the University of Toronto was the adjudicator and the Sisters of the Holy Cross were Howie’s teachers. The adjudicator described his voice as “melodious” and thus it won many awards and compliments for his school. Highland dancing was another of his early loves and he again repeated his winning ways at different competitions.
The different churches in Glengarry began calling on Howie’s singing talent for their different parish socials and concerts where he was advertised as the main attraction. High school concerts, plays, weddings, funerals, house parties, Warden’s banquets, Irish and Scottish concerts in the small towns and villages around the County found Howie Morris contributing his singing and/or dancing talents. His own renditions of the Celtic songs, his charisma on stage and his sincere love of the songs of his ancestors endeared him to his many fans.
The war years found him working in a munitions plant in Vallyfield, Quebec. The loss of his right eye from a childhood accident precluded him from joining the armed forces in WWII; however, he unselfishly participated in every concert staged in the war effort, for the benefit of his buddies “over there.”
His marriage in 1947 and the subsequent arrival of eleven children (one deceased), enhanced his love of song. He sang with his growing family in the barn, the hayfield, around the old piano at bedtime and especially in the St. Finnan’s Cathedral choir under the tutelage of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The Cathedral choir drew him like a magnet to every practice and every service as he attempted, hour after hour, to master the intricacies of the Gregorian Chant. His enjoyment, too, of the company of his fellow choristers, Eugene and Ron MacDonald, Dr. Bernard Villeneuve and Alex Smith, was noticed by Rev. John MacPhail, who recruited them to become actors in his para-musicals of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” plays for the St. Andrew’s concerts and later, the St. Patrick’s concerts where they all became Irishmen.
In 1948, Howie Morris was the soloist at the first Glengarry Highland Games, lending his lilting rendition of Bonnie Dundee. A few years later, he and his children composed a medley of Celtic airs for the first Friday night Tattoo. Since that time, the Morris Family children (and now grandchildren) have carried on their father’s tradition with their renditions of the Scottish, American and Canadian national anthems at the opening of the Glengarry Highland Games.
In the mid 1950s, Howie was honoured to get a call from none other than Don Messer inviting him to tour with his organization; he gave it a great deal of thought, but felt that leaving his young family for an extended period of time was not an option.
Four of Howie & Gwen’s daughters and one son have continued their study of music, specializing in the study of voice. Jean studied in London, England, the U. Of T., and sang with the Elmer Eisler Choir of Toronto; in addition, she has sung in operas and musicals in London, Hamilton, Ottawa and Calgary. Maureen, a music graduate of the University of Calgary, has sung opera there and taught high school instrumental and choral music. Mary is the music teacher of a Brantford School choir and Gracie has taught musical theatre for 15 years in Perth. Cleary, too is a teacher, and the choir director at Blessed Sacrament Church in Ottawa. While they have studied choral and classical music, the music of their hearts is the music of their father – the Celtic airs he taught them – and when they gather together, those are the songs they sing. His children have truly carried on Howie’s legacy of his love for Celtic music and they have passed that legacy on to their children – his grandchildren.
In 1978, a year before Howie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he and his ten children were honoured to be asked to sing at the Ottawa Glengarry Club’s concert at the National Arts Centre. The following year, at the request of friends, the family planned a recording with him; it featured Howie’s favourite songs. The record, From Fieldstone to Fireside was completed a week before he died in 1982 and Howard’s version of My Bonnie Native Glen on that record was his final contribution to Celtic music in Glengarry. The $4000 from the sale of the record was donated to Dr. Phil Gold of the Montreal General Hospital, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on cancer research.