The Things We Leave Behind: Sean Two Months On

“The last good time always comes, and when you see the darkness creeping towards you, you hold onto what was bright and good. You hold on for dear life.” Stephen King, Joyland


The Last Good Time

What you see above are the last two photographs ever taken of me and my brother Sean who passed away two months ago. Throughout our lives, we were probably photographed a thousand times at various stages by many different people. Birthday parties, family celebrations, Christmas, family reunions and everyday occurrences. These were taken on September 12th, at a 40th birthday celebration in Farmersville, Illinois. The other people you see are our good friends Mike and Cindy Murphy. I can’t remember now what Sean was talking about, but whatever it was obviously made me laugh and drew in others to listen to the tale.

I found these pictures while sorting through some of his personals in the weeks after he passed, and they took my breath away since I had honestly forgotten they were taken. After looking at them for some time, I was reminded of a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, “The memory of the moment and the possibilities inherent in that moment are everlasting.” What was possible in that moment is that Sean and I would find a way to reestablish a deeper connection after having lost each other for some time in the prior years, caused by our mutual stubbornness, political debates gone awry and various disagreements. As kids, we were the closest of friends, spending countless hours, days and years together and creating thousands of moments of inherent possibilities, as childhood provides. As the years passed, things changed for each of us with getting married, having children, careers, and other responsibilities and hobbies.

The last weekend I saw him started Saturday night at the birthday party of one of our father’s good friends Courtney Murphy. Sean and I sat together and ate and talked for a while before he saw someone he had not seen in a few years and who was from a different social circle than everyone else there and they talked for a long while, reconnecting. Before we left, we went to talk to Mike about his upcoming adventure where he would be participating in his first Iron Man competition, including swimming which he is not proficient in. We joked that David Hasselhoff would be waiting on shore to rescue him.

The next day, we met at Rolling Hills golf course for a quick round of 9 holes on a beautiful, sunny, and mild day. It was me, Sean, Kevin, dad, our uncle Rick and Mike Bolling. Except for Kevin who can actually golf, we all played poorly but enjoyed the time and day together telling stories, cracking jokes at each other’s expense and listened to dad pontificate on all matters of history, current events and family. Afterwards, we stopped at McDonald’s for a cool drink and argued over who had won the round. Tempers flared, especially between Sean and Mike over who took more penalty strokes, who lost the most balls and which putts counted. Later that night, me, Sean and our parents shared a meal together before I left for home. As we walked out and before getting into our cars, Sean and I said to each other that we would see each other later. The moment was an example of both of us trying to be better people, to forget all the ill feelings over the last few years and to make a new beginning. One of the many things I’ve learned since his passing is that it is easy to be hurt by people’s actions and words which in turn makes you want to avoid those people and the ensuing opportunity for more disagreements. But in the end, it’s not worth the lost time and lost moments and we need to find a way to be more kind and understanding and loving to each other. I’ve learned to try to forgive and forget and remember what is truly important in life. Regret can sometimes be the only thing we hold onto as we go through life and that is a heavy thing to carry.


Hilligoss 3 at Buddy Guy's Legends 2015

The Hilligoss 3, along with Bill Murray, at Buddy Guy’s Legends, Chicago, Il 2015



The Dash

Back in 1998, we lost our fraternal uncle Ronald Edwin Hilligoss who died of a heart attack while walking through Lambert International Airport in St.Louis en route to returning to Phoenix, Az after he had attended his class reunion in Arcola, Il. At his funeral, one of the speakers read the poem, The Dash, and it struck a chord with Sean and he spoke of it often. I think he learned a thing or two from it and tried to live his dash the best he could. I think we can all learn a thing or two if we remember during trying times that the special dash between our birth and death only lasts a little while.


The Dash
by Linda Ellis copyright 1996

​I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So, think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
​the way other people feel.

And be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before. 

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

​So, when your eulogy is being read,
with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent YOUR dash?

Sean and Rory, Godfrey IL 2009


All You Got Is Lifetime: Go

Since Sean passed, I’ve learned and often times just been reminded of obvious truths that I’ve lost sight of while getting caught up in the everyday tasks of living my life. Here are a few of them:The world is a beautiful place, even in the darkest of times, if only we have the time and patience and vision to stop and look around. Just like Babe Ruth said, swing big with everything you have. Hit big or miss big. Live as big as you can. We’re only here once so you might as well give it your best shot. Take care of yourselves while also taking care of each other. What else are we here for? If you love someone, let them know. You never know when or if you will see them again. If you see wrongs around you, take action and try to right them. Be careful with your words, they might be the last you speak or hear. In the immortal words of musician Warren Zevon who was given a terminal cancer diagnosis and was asked how the news had changed his perspective, enjoy every sandwich.

Another large lesson I’ve learned and hope to pass on to anyone reading this and willing to listen and take it to heart concerns our personal affairs. I know it’s a difficult topic since death is not something many of us want to think about or talk about, but whether you are 25, 45, 75 or 90, it’s there waiting for all of us and you never know when something might happen. Get your personal wishes in order including funeral arrangements, financials, wills, etc. The process can be fairly simple if you chose to handle on your own and can still be fairly simple if you see an attorney. It may cost some money, it may make you uncomfortable at the time and may force you to make some tough decisions, but your family and friends left behind to carry on will thank you. Trust me, I know from personal experience.



We will find strength in what remains behind

To friends and family near and wide. The Robert Hilligoss family thanks everyone for all the support and kindness that has been given to us during our time of tragedy. For all of the phone calls, messages, food, time spent, condolences and distances travelled. We lost our son and brother and friend, and we mourn him and grieve but we will move forward with Sean in our hearts. After all the physical, worldly possessions are gone, all that is left are our friends and family, our souls and memories. We are only on this earth for a brief time so please, be kind to one another,be loving, be grateful for the time we have and take care of yourselves while also taking care of each other. Grace, mercy and forgiveness can help a man walk tall. So walk tall, walk on.

Thank you for reading.




For My Brother Robert Sean Hilligoss: Fly on Brother, Fly On

Sean at wedding

By Ryan Hilligoss, Eulogy presented at Sean’s funeral September 28, 2015

I would like to open with a poem by William Wordsworth.

 Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations on Immortality.

In his book Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Thoreau was writing about whether we as a person are destined to conform to the norms and values of the society around us, or whether we blaze our own path through life in our own way. As we all know, Sean was unconventional and non-traditional in every which way. If you look at life as a concert on the stage, not only did Sean march to a different drummer, he heard a stage full of 100 drummers each in their own style, that only he could hear, much to our own puzzlement and bewilderment. He heard the driving back beat of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley’s rock and roll. He heard the Chicago shuffle of the blues in Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He heard the freeform jazz rhythms of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And he heard the Texas swing of his friend Dale Watson. And to all these, Sean marched to his own beat, in his own way. And usually that way was his way or the highway with him tearing down the road on some mission, with us standing on the road’s shoulder scratching our heads on what just happened as we watched his taillights disappear down the road thinking, oh that’s just Sean, he’ll be back to pick me up soon, won’t he? Sean….hey Sean……He’s coming back to get me right?

Sean with Dale Watson, his favorite country and Americana artist

Sean with Dale Watson, his favorite country and Americana artist

A few things about Sean you may or may not know. When we were kids, our grandfather Barr had colorful nicknames for each of us. Kevin was Tevin, I was Barski and Sean was called Shagnasty.

L-r: Tevin, Shagnasty, Barski and Hubert Barr

L-r: Tevin, Shagnasty, Barski and Hubert Barr

When he was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 3, he didn’t understand, nor could he and all he heard the doctor talk about was the word sugar. With the Sean laying in his hospital bed, the doctor said he would only live to be 25 and a big tear rolled down his cheek, knowing what this meant for him even at a very young age. After the doctor left the room, Sean asked my mom if it was because he ate too many Hostess Ding Dongs.

Sean black and white

His first car was a yellow convertible 1972 Ford Mustang which he quickly damaged by blowing the engine while he may or may not have been out racing in the streets.

While playing Little League, he was playing catch and started to day dream while looking off into the blue sky, promptly took a ball right into his eye for which he got a tremendous black eye, quit that team and never played baseball again.

The Hilligoss Wrecking Crew: Ryan, Sean, Erin, Kevin and Joel

The Hilligoss Wrecking Crew: Ryan, Sean, Erin, Kevin and Joel

We all worked at our parent’s Brown’s Chicken and during his very rebellious days, took exception to some orders from our father, quit on the spot and took a job at Central Hardware for a few years while he cooled off.

He had a good friend named Brian Sharp who passed away from an accident, Sean was devastated and spoke often of him throughout his life.

Brian Sharp

Brian Sharp

When he was about 12, he broke our mom’s brand new sun recliner and promptly fixed it with masking tape and said, “Oh, she’ll never notice.” Boy was he surprised when she got home and tried to lay down.

Around 1990, he adopted a German Shepherd/Malamute which he and I promptly named Spanky and took care of together while we lived at home.

Sean and Spanky

Sean and Spanky

Sean took me to see Joe Cocker and Stevie Ray Vaughn at the Fox Theater in August of 1990 which was Stevie’s second to last show before passing away in a helicopter crash.

Ryan's wedding

He was a collection of contradictions. For someone who was a germaphobe and did not like his food to be messed with, he loved nothing more than to mess with other people’s food.

His most common complaint was, “How come no one told me, I wasn’t invited,” which was ironic since he was famous for making plans and not telling anyone.
I’ve only been talking for a few minutes at this point, but if he were here, he would be embarrassed with all this attention and would tell me to put a sock in it, get it together and get back to business.

When we were all kids living at home, we spent all our time together playing whiffle ball with the neighborhood gang, riding bikes, and just generally tormenting each other. During the snowy days of winter, we would go sledding for hours and hours until all of our layers were soaked, go back home and dry off and then promptly go back out again until we got in trouble for being out too late. As Kevin got older, Sean and I were left to our own devices and our favorite activity was to go off walking in the woods behind our house. Like the true explorers we were, we would walk off into the unknown wilds of Godfrey, walking along a creek that runs behind our neighborhood and all the way over behind the Godfrey water treatment facility and points beyond. Each time we would go out, we would go further and further, pushing the boundaries of our endurance, always looking ahead to what would be up around the next bend in the trail. We may have stayed out too late, often returning as darkness fell, but we always made it home.

Sean and Ryan, Godfrey, Il 1980

Sean and Ryan, Godfrey, Il 1980

In the summer, we would pitch a tent in the backyard and camp out under the stars. We would talk about things, laugh, share our deepest fears and highest hopes, and try to solve some of the mysteries of life as best we could in our young minds. The highlight of each of these sleep outs was once the lights were off in the house and mom and dad went to bed, Sean and I would slip out of the tent and go on adventures around the neighborhood and around Gilson Brown, walking and scurrying around under the cover of darkness, never causing any harm, just out playing as kids do, living out parts of a movie. Fast forward 30 years to last weekend. Sean took Audrey and Anna Lynn to the Apple Fest and afterwards came back to our parent’s house. Dad drug out our old tent from the garage and set it up in the front yard so the girls could play in it. They got into it for a few minutes and then wanted to get out but Sean decided to crawl into the tent with them and they wrestled and tickled each other and laughed and carried on for a long time. He loved his girls with all his heart and tried to pass down the good things from his own childhood. As we move from childhood to adulthood and take on new roles in life with careers and family, it sometimes is easy to get lost amidst daily life and lose track of what is important, but with a little help from our families and friends, we usually can find our way home again.

Graham Ronald Hilligoss with his Uncle Sean, 2008.

Graham Ronald Hilligoss with his Uncle Sean, 2008.

As we go through life, we collect a wide assortment of human souls around us, whether they be by blood or friendship, and once they are gone from us, they can never be replaced, no matter how hard we might try. Sean was many things in life to many people including a son, brother, nephew, uncle and most importantly, a father, just to name a few, but what I will miss most is my friend. So instead of saying goodbye, I will just say, I will see you further on up the road my friend.

Robert Sean Hilligoss with his girls Audrey and Annalynn, 2015

Robert Sean Hilligoss with his girls Audrey and Annalynn, 2015

I would like to close out with this from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I depart as air…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Dad with Sean balloon

Godspeed Seanie

Fly on brother, fly on

Fly on brother, fly on

Songs Played at his funeral, selected by brothers Kevin and Ryan

Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole

Pilgrim, Steve Earle

Amazing Grace, Elvis Presely

In The Sweet By and By, Johnny Cash

In The Garden, Elvis Presley

How Great Thou Art, Elvis Presley

I’ll Fly Away, Jason D Williams

Blood Brothers, Bruce Springsteen

KLH44 At Fifty: Walk Tall My Friend, Walk On

Like spirits in the night, all night. Ryan, Robert and Kevin attend Bruce Springsteen concert, Wrigley Field, Chicago, September 2012.

Like spirits in the night, all night. Ryan, Robert and Kevin attend Bruce Springsteen concert, Wrigley Field, Chicago, September 2012.

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination. for a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. but there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. at last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. this perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. happiness is the way. so treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one.” Souza

By Ryan Hilligoss, September 1, 2015

This date is a red-letter day in famous birthdays including boxing great Rocky Marciano, country musician Conway Twitty, and actress/comedian Lily Tomlin who once said, “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Also born on this day in Springfield, Illinois in 1965 was my brother, Kevin Lee Hilligoss. I don’t think he’ll be upset with me for writing this for the world to see since I think he subscribes to Satchel Paige’s wisdom on growing older, “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind then it don’t matter.” In order to get a clear understanding of the situation on our relationship as brothers, I need to do give you a little background and take you back to the beginning.

Robert Lee and Kevin Lee Hilligoss, Divernon, Illinois 1965

Robert Lee and Kevin Lee Hilligoss, Divernon, Illinois 1965

OK that’s a little too far back for me to explain since I wasn’t born until much, much later. Let’s try this again.

You better slow that Mustang down Kevin Lee. 1825 Bertman Avenue, Springfield, Il

You better slow that Mustang down Kevin Lee. 1825 Bertman Avenue, Springfield, Il

Even though I know that driveway very well, that’s still too far back for me but we’re getting there.

The Three Stooges visit Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, Illinois

The Three Stooges visit Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, Illinois

Almost there, but you get the budding picture.

 Butch Cassidy was looking at this picture when he asked Sundance the famous question,

Butch Cassidy was looking at this picture when he asked Sundance the famous question, “Who are those guys?”

Ok, this is just right. This is Kevin and our neighbors Joe and Damon Vogt messing around at our house in Godfrey after Kevin got off from a shift at the world-famous Alton Brown’s Chicken, notice the yellow shirt and tan corduroys that served as our collective uniform. If I close my eyes and think back I can still smell a faint glimmer of fried chicken, mushrooms and liver that in the 1970s and 1980s passed as low-fat. Many of my earliest childhood memories centered on my brothers Kevin and Sean and the collective gang of neighborhood and nearby friends like Scott Voumard, George Siampos and John Deal that terrorized me as a youngster. I can’t blame them since many of those memories include them doing various activities such as playing whiffle ball in the street, riding bicycles, shooting fireworks and me trying to tag along much to their dismay and irritation. While looking back on it now, many people might think they were cruel and inhumane :), they are moments in time that stick out to me as favorites from childhood. A few of their crimes and misdemeanors will now be enumerated.


In the front yard of our childhood home is a giant Sugar Gum tree that each year leafs out and provides plenty of shade but also produces an ungodly amount of gum balls that sprout during the summer into hard, green balls with pointed prongs which later in the year turn brown and fall to the ground which we then have to rake by the thousands for weeks on end until they are all gone. On a random summer evening, I was turned into a human carnival game involving said gum balls and the end of our driveway in what some might call the human duck shoot. While Kevin collected plenty of gum balls to be used as ammunition, he explained the rules of the game to unsuspecting, 6-year-old me. “OK. Now you go to the end of the driveway and walk back and forth. Here is the fun part. I’m going to throw these gum balls at you and if I hit you, you say “ding” really loud and then turn the other way and keep walking.” After about 10 minutes of this “game” and being pegged several times, I started to wonder what the hell kind of game this was and quickly retreated to my bedroom to inspect my wounds and plot my revenge.

You’ll Have Nothing and Like It!!

The subdivision we grew up in sat on Illinois  Route 100 which was and remains a very busy, main thoroughfare in town. As a youngster, I was forbidden by my mother to cross the road to gain access to the bike path that led to a convenience store 1/2 mile down the road or to my friend’s subdivision very close by. Knowing this, one day Kevin and the gang thought they would push my 6-7 year old buttons. Kevin and Co got  on their bikes and told me to follow them for a ride. Being much older, bigger, stronger and more handsome than little old me, they were able to bike quickly from one spot to another while I pedaled furiously on my red, banana seat bike complete with red flames. After what seemed like a lifetime, we reached the top of the big hill that led out of our subdivision. Much to my disappointment and consternation, I was told they were heading off to Six Flags and unfortunately even though they didn’t like it, rules are rules and I couldn’t cross the street without mom or dad present. While this statement now is understood to be completely preposterous since Six Flags amusement park is near Eureka, Mo, a good 60 miles from Godfrey, my feeble, stupid and completely naive young mind really thought they were going to ride their Schwinn’s off into the sunset and go enjoy the Screaming Eagle roller coaster, Log Flume and countless other thrills. With tears in my eyes, I was left to ponder this great travesty while they rode down to Handy Pantry for a soda and candy, of which I got none. Sniff, sniff.

Is that all you got George? ....yep

Is that all you got George? ….yep

Hey Ryan, come here I want to tell you a secret.

Even though there was violence and blood involved, this is my personal favorite. One beautiful, hot, sticky and humid summer afternoon, Cordell Court was hot and heavy with serious whiffle ball action. Being too dumb to realize a six-year-old who couldn’t run or throw would add nothing of value to either team, I repeatedly asked to play or bat but was told to go away. After watching from the curb for a while, I decided to go into the house and thought it would be funny to lock the screen door as a form of retribution. While watching Looney Tunes on the living room set, I heard the door handle rattle and Kevin tell me to unlock the door because he had to get ready for work at the restaurant. Still licking my wounds, I ignored this for a few minutes from the safety of the couch much to his chagrin. After I heard his irritation start to rise by the tone in his voice which repeatedly said, “Open this god damned door”,  I thought it would be even funnier to go over to the door and taunt him a little by acting like I unlatched the door and then telling him to come in. For some reason this didn’t seem to make him any happier and after a few ploys, he said, “Hey Ryan, come over by the screen, I want to tell you a secret,” Based on my description of my naiveté above, you know where this is going. I soon had my face plastered against the screen door with thumbs in both ears and fingers waving back and forth while uttering great words of wisdom, the usual nanny nanny boo boo. At that point, he had had enough and channeling his inner Muhammad Ali, reared back and gave me his best straight jab that soon had me laying on my back with blood spilling from my nose and puzzlement on my face. Needless to say, his fists did the talking and after regaining consciousness, I graciously unlocked the door and welcomed him in to our lovely abode.

Straight out of central casting for The Newhart Show, Larry and his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl walking the mean streets of Old Town

Straight out of central casting for The Newhart Show, Larry and his brother Darryl and his other brother Darryl walking the mean streets of Old Town

I only kid about these moments because we can look back on them now and they all “seem” funny. These are what we call Terms of Endearment in our family. These were just a few of our many adventures as kids that also included a phantom ice cream truck bell and me running from one house in the neighborhood to another, mom’s new patio furniture being broken and us geniuses using scotch tape for temporary repairs (oh, she’ll never notice), and a broken garage window caused by an errant Frisbee toss( I have no idea how that happened, must have been a rabid Blue Jay). There were also moments of great hilarity, at least for the three of us, focusing on Sunday night dinner at home which was the one time of the week we all sat down together for a meal. A nice, quiet moment inevitably turned into outbursts of “Mom, he’s looking at me!!!”, me being duped into giving Kevin “five” which resulted in my hand slapping his dinner plate into a pile of warm ketchup, and other complete misbehavior until our dad grew enraged and retreated to his man cave upstairs much to our glee. If you asked him, I’m not sure dad would think these moments were as funny as we knew them to be at the time.

Like many other siblings, as the youngest, I looked up to Kevin and Sean and tried to follow in their footsteps while making my way as the years passed. Being much older, I repeat…much older, than Sean and I, he was the cool brother with his driver’s license and a yellow 72′ Ford Mustang, license plate KLH 44 or powder gray Duster. With those wheels, we cruised the streets listening to Springsteen on the tape deck sing about Hungry Hearts and Glory Days. He introduced us to rock concerts, somehow magically talking my mom into letting him take Sean and I to the Checkerdome in St.Louis to see Springsteen and ZZ Top. Later, the venues changed and expanded to include many concerts including Jimmy Buffet, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry and Billy Joel (“Hey, these are great seats” said the people sitting in the second to last row atop Busch Stadium)


I wanna be a cowboy baby. Little Bighorn, Montana

Some of the best times we’ve had over the years have centered on road trips we’ve taken to points east, west, north and south including Phoenix, Hawaii, Bahamas, Washington DC, Gettysburg battlefield, Monticello, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, the gates of Graceland and Sun Studios in Memphis.

Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he's ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

Johnny B Goode. Kevin Lee Hilligoss playing the guitar like he’s ringing a bell, University City, St.Louis, Mo

We’ve spent a lot of time together, traveled many, many roads, watched a lot of baseball games and listened to a lot of good music together and these are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years courtesy of Bruce, Buffet, Buddy and John:

-Hard times come and hard times go, hard times come and hard times go just to come again. Bring on your wrecking ball and I’ll take the hits, dust myself off and keep going

-On through the houses of the dead past those fallen in their tracks

Always movin’ ahead and never lookin’ back
Now I don’t know how I feel, I don’t know how I feel tonight
If I’ve fallen ‘neath the wheel, if I’ve lost or I’ve gained sight

But the stars are burnin’ bright like some mistery uncovered
I’ll keep movin’ through the dark with you in my heart
My blood brother

-We are alive, we stand shoulder shoulder and heart to heart

-All you need is just a few friends, just a few friends

-Some never fade away and some crash and burn
Some make the world go round, others watch it turn
Still it’s all a mystery, this place we call the world
Most are fine as oysters while some become pearls

-I’ve been around a while, I know wrong from right
And since a long time ago, Things been always black and white
Just like you can’t judge a book by the cover
We all gotta be careful, How we treat one another underneath we’re all just the same

-Be careful in what you believe in there’s plenty to get you confused
And in this land called paradise you must walk in many men’s shoes
Bigotry and hatred are enemies to us all
Grace, mercy and forgiveness will help a man walk tall, So walk tall, walk on, walk tall through this world

As Souza said above, there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. Keep on walking brother and show us the way. Walk tall my friend, walk on.

Kevin Lee walking along the Little Bighorn, Montana.

Kevin Lee walking along the Little Bighorn, Montana.

Hardcore Troubadours: The Music of Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle

The Last of the Hardcore Troubadours, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen

The Last of the Hardcore Troubadours, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss, January 15, 2015

And now he’s the last of the all night, do right
Stand beneath your window ’til daylight
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours
Baby, what you waitin’ for

He’s the last of the all night, do right
Hey Rosalita won’t you come out tonight
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours, Steve Earle Hardcore Troubadour, 1996

(Expanded and revised text from special programming  on Sirius/XM E Street Radio, Channel 20, Be The Boss segment. To be aired Thursday 1/15 5:00pm EST, Friday 1/16 9:00am EST, and Saturday 1/17 6:00pm EST.)

This is a special post dedicated to the musical connections between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle who celebrates his 60th birthday on January 17. For those of you who don’t know, Steve Earle is a songwriter, singer, musician, recording artist, political activist, poet, actor and author. Earle is also the host of the Sirius/XM show Steve Earle: Hardcore Troubadour Radio that airs on Outlaw Radio, channel 60 on Saturdays at 9:00pm est and well worth the listen as each week, Earle picks a theme and plays records from a wide array of artists, genres and styles that reflect his eclectic tastes in music that have inspired and influenced his own writings and recordings over the years. As we move well into the 21st Century, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle continue to make some of the best music of their careers.Together, their music runs on parallel steel rails and highways that stretch from the ‘New York Islands to the Redwood Forest.’

In the last fifteen years, Springsteen has released the albums, High Hopes, Wrecking Ball, Working  On A Dream, Magic, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Devils and Dust and The Rising. Many of these rank in my own personal top 10 Springsteen albums of all time, and Wrecking Ball, The Rising and Magic rank in my top 5. Conversely, Earle has released The Low Highway, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Townes, Washington Square Serenade, The Revolution Starts Now,Transcendental Blues, El Corazon, and The Mountain. All these albums combined stand as one hell of a hitting streak for two recording artists in regards to the quality of songwriting, range of styles, arrangements, topics, soul and spirit covered on these albums.

Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 2007

Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 2007

While E Street regulars know that Bruce Springsteen was born and raised in Freehold, New Jersey, one thing they may not know is he grew up in a section of town called ‘Texas’ that included a lot of people from Texas and other southern states who moved to the north to find jobs at the many factories in the area. Due to his surroundings, Springsteen developed a slightly southern accent which you can still hear at times in his normal speech and in his singing from time to time, most clearly to me on the song Wrecking Ball. Springsteen’s musical roots include the music of Motown and Stax studios, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, The Crystals and Shirelles, and many more including artists in country and punk music.

Steve Earle was raised in and around San Antonio, Texas and his musical roots lean more towards singer songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and his friend and mentor, Townes Van Zandt. My friend Jeff Calaway from Texas has heard that Earle and his family were so proud of their roots that when Steve Earle was born, the family lived in another state temporarily and they had taken soil from home with them so the first dirt he ever stepped on was native Texan soil. While Earle definitely has strong roots in country, bluegrass and folk music, he definitely can rock with the best of them, often times backed by his band the Dukes. I believe Steve Earle to be one of two of the best songwriters in American music right now and I’ll stand on my computer desk in my black running shoes and say it for all the world to hear!!!!!!  For those of you that don’t know, I’m paraphrasing a famous quote where Steve said that Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the world and he would stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in his boots for all the world to hear. While Townes may be Earle’s biggest influence, Springsteen has played a huge role, directly and more obliquely through inspiration, in the career of Steve Earle.


Pancho and Lefty: Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt


After struggling in Nashville as a songwriter and musician for over 10 years, Earle finally recorded and released his first full length album in 1986, Guitar Town. And Bruce Springsteen had two direct impacts on the recording and success of that album. First, Earle has stated that he went to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street band in 1985 in Murphysborough, Tennessee and it was a revelation for him personally and professionally. He said it was obvious that Bruce had written Born In The USA to open the album which would open the concerts on that tour and he wanted to do the same with his album. Here are Earle’s own words, “I mean, I was gonna make a record that had sort of a theme that ran from beginning to end that was designed to put on the turntable and listen to the whole thing.  I saw that tour two weeks before I started writing the songs and there’s no way in the world that wasn’t gonna influence this record.  I mean, he opened with “Born In the USA. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen to this day and it influenced me as a performer for the rest of my career. I’ve always been a very unapologetic Bruce Springsteen fan.”

The second connection between Springsteen and the success of Guitar Town is the fact that a few months after the album was released, Springsteen walked into a record store and bought  a cassette copy of the album at the suggestion of Garry Tallent who knew a few guys in Steve’s band. Someone saw Springsteen buy the album, the news got printed in Billboard magazine, and the album sold out the existing 30,000 copies at the time and became a hit. Earle has stated that Springsteen’s endorsement of his record at the time greatly helped pave the way to a long, successful career.

Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby Now

Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, February 6, 1998. Sea Bright, New Jersey

Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, February 6, 1998. Sea Bright, New Jersey


My good friend Shawn Poole has mentioned to me that much like Springsteen who has stated he wrote Fire as a demo for Elvis Presley, Steve Earle wrote a song entitled Mustang Wine which was rumored to have been submitted to RCA as a demo for a Presley recording session around 1975. While we haven’t been able to confirm the accuracy of this, what we do know is that Elvis’ fellow Sun Record alumn Carl Perkins, who was a major early rock and roll influence, did record Mustang Wine in 1977. On February 6, 1998 at the Tradewinds in Sea Bright, New Jersey, Springsteen joined Steve Earle live on stage, only a few weeks after Carl Perkins had passed away. They played several songs together including Guitar Town, I Ain’t Ever Satisfied, Dead Flowers and  a cover of Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby, a big hit for Perkins in the early Sun Record days.

A Land of Hopeful Wanderers

Over the years, I’ve walked into a lot of record stores and bought all the records of both of these great artists. One of the things that has struck me is their uncanny ability to write songs and record albums that speak to the times around us and what is going on in our nation and the larger world around us in a timely, prescient manner. Several of their albums have been released within a relatively close period of time and have had common themes, and some even have very common songs. One topic that has been important to both of them is our nation’s history of immigrants and the role they have played in the successes and failures of our nation. In 2010, Springsteen received the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award award which honors Americans whose families came through the Port of New York and Ellis Island and said, “With all the immigrant furor out there, it’s good to remember that we’re a nation of immigrants, of hopeful wanderers. And we cannot know who is coming across our borders today, whose story will add a significant page to the American story. Who will work hard, who will raise a family, whose new blood will strengthen the good fabric holding our nation together.”

In 2006 as part of the Seeger Sessions project, Springsteen wrote a new song American Land and in 2007, Earle released Washington Square Serenade which includes City of Immigrants. In Earle’s song, he sings, ” All of us are immigrants, every daughter,every son. River flows out and sea rolls in, washing away nearly all of my sins, living in a city of immigrants.” American Land was inspired by a poem written by immigrant steel worker Andrew Kovaly set to music by Pete Seeger and he writes of the nation’s ideals and hopes of the masses, “There’s diamonds in the sidewalk, there’s gutters lined in song. Dear I hear the beer flows through the faucets all night long. There’s treasure for the taking for any hard working man who will make his home in the American Land.” I’d like to dedicate this next set to fellow E Street Radio listener and frequent caller Patrick from Chicago who immigrated to America in 1985 from Ireland looking for a better life for himself and his family.

One Of These Days I’m Gonna Lay This Hammer Down


Some hard travellin' troubadours: Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie

Some hard travellin’ troubadours: Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie


Pete Seeger, musician, folk music archivist, social activist, is one artist that both Springsteen and Earle have been inspired by, and each recorded and performed with him before he passed away last year. In 2012, both artists recorded with Seeger on his album A More Perfect Union, Springsteen on God’s Counting On You, God’s Counting On Me and Earle on This Old Man Revisited. The connections between them all goes back to the music of Woody Guthrie who chronicled the lives of those suffering around him during the Great Depression in the 1930s, the echoes of which have carried throughout the country to this day. Pete Seeger sang and recorded with Woody and picked up Woody’s spirit of activism and carried on his musical legacy. In his classic If I Had A Hammer, Pete sings about hammering out love between brothers and sisters. He sings about ringing his bell in the morning and evening. He sings about singing his song all over the land. And he sings about having a hammer of justice, a bell of freedom and a song of love. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle have been asking the same questions as those earlier artists, and in their observations and recordings, they point out to their fans and listeners the problems they see around us and in essence, ask us what we are willing or able to try to help solve them. It’s like in Death To My Hometown when Springsteen sings “now get yourself a song to sing and sing until you’re done, yeah sing it hard and sing it well.” What all of these artists ask us to do is find our song whatever that may be, not in song or music necessarily but in whatever creative ways we are capable of, and to take action and help each other get through the hard times. These next songs best exemplify the work and music that continues the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and countless others who have used music to push the national conversation along whether on social justice, homelessness, hunger, crime and punishment, government or war. Springsteen recorded Woody Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullabye for the album Give Us Your Poor and includes background vocals and banjo by Seeger.

I’d like to dedicate these songs to my grandfathers Robert Samuel Hilligoss and Hubert Barr, one who served in the USMC during WWII and the other who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Both were men who came from hard backgrounds but who served their country in a time of need, worked hard their whole live to give their kids and families a better life and carried themselves with pride and dignity no matter the circumstances.

Steve Earle and Pete Seeger

Steve Earle and Pete Seeger

Burning Down My Hometown

As their careers have continued, Springsteen and Earle have expanded their musical styles and songwriting topics to include matters of local, national, and international levels. Back in 1999, Earle recorded his excellent bluegrass album, The Mountain, with the Del McCoury Band. Six years later, after being asked to participate in a Pete Seeger tribute album, Springsteen formed a band that became the Seeger Sessions Band which he used to record many traditional folk and American classics from the Seeger/American catalog. While Springsteen was recording and releasing The Rising and Magic that spoke to our post 9/11 times including wars overseas and the costs to the troops and families back home as well as the lives of the people in those countries, Earle was recording and releasing the albums Jerusalem, The Revolution Starts Now, Washington Square Serenade and I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which covered many of the same topics in an ardent tone. Springsteen’s release in 2012 of Wrecking Ball chronicled what had happened to the country since the economic meltdown of 2008 with its impact on hundreds of millions of citizens, their families, lives and bank accounts. In 2013,  Earle released the Low Highway which also spoke power to the state of the country’s citizens and their plight to make ends meet and for those citizens who remain ‘Invisible.’ In Springsteen’s song Death To My Hometown, his protagonist warns his friends, coworkers and neighbors that the vultures are here to pick their bones and beseeches them to do something about it, personified by the sound of a gun being loaded followed by a hearty….Hey!!!! In Earle’s song Burning It Down, his protagonist sits in his pickup truck in his hometown thinking about burning down the local WalMart using a homemade bomb because “things will never be the same around here.” Both characters feel overwhelmed by mysterious, outside forces that don’t have individual names and faces, but they want to take action and regain some semblance of control over their lives.

People lining up for something to eat, and the ghosts of America watching me along the low highway

People lining up for something to eat, and the ghosts of America watching me along the low highway


There’s A Dirty Wind Blowing

In 2004, Earle released The Revolution Starts Now and in 2007, Springsteen released Magic.Both albums play as a scorched earth take on the first GWB administration, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the treatment of the soldiers and the citizens of those countries affected by the decisions of our nation’s “leaders”. On Magic, songs including Long Walk Home, Devil’s Arcade and Last To Die are essential listening for understanding the mindset and psychology of what was happening at the time. One line from Long Walk Home has been ingrained in my mind from the first time I heard it which may be one of his greatest of all time, “That flag flying over the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone/Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” The rage and condemnation are openly at a boil throughout both albums. While varying in styles, tempos and lyrical content, they both hold a magnifying glass to the horrors of what is happening and what has been lost along the way including our constitutional freedoms, lives, and spirits. Earle writes in the liner notes to The Revolution Starts Now, “The Constitution of the United States of America is a REVOLUTIONARY document in every sense of the word. It was designed to evolve, to live, and to breathe like the people that it governs. It is, ingeniously, and perhaps conversely, resilient enough to change with the times in order to meet the challenges of its third century and rigid enough to preserve the ideals that inspired its original articles and amendments. As long as we are willing to put in the work required to defend and nurture this remarkable invention of our forefathers, then I believe with all my heart that it will continue to thrive for generations to come. Without our active participation, however, the future is far from certain. For without the lifeblood of the human spirit even the greatest documents produced by humankind are only words on paper and parchment, destined to yellow and crack and eventually crumble to dust.”




We All Walk The Long Road: Dead Man Walking Soundtrack

Swing Low, swing low and carry me home

Swing Low, swing low and carry me home


Another interesting connection between Springsteen and Earle is that both artists were asked to write songs for the movie Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins and starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and tackled the hard topics of class, violence, murder, and capital punishment. Springsteen wrote and recorded Dead Man Walkin’ and Earle wrote and recorded the superlative Ellis Unit One. Another artist who recorded for the soundtrack was Johnny Cash, who heavily influenced Bruce’s writings during The River and Nebraska sessions. Johnny wrote In Your Mind for the soundtrack and Steve Earle who had been away from recording for a period of time while he worked his way through some dark days, came into the studio with Johnny and played rhythm guitar and got to duplicate Luther Perkins signature chicka boom guitar pattern on the song. Earle has said that when he walked into the studio, Johnny Cash was sitting at a table waiting for him with a picnic basket and instead of trying to talk to him about his recent troubles, Johnny simply reached for the basket and asked, “Hey Steve, you want some tenderloin and biscuits June made this morning?” Earle said he will be forever grateful to Johnny Cash and that moment in which Johnny didn’t push the issue a lot of other people wanted to talk about, and just let it play it out with his normal grace and humility.

Is There Anybody Out There, Deliver Me From Nowhere


Are you tuning in and turning on?

Are you tuning in and turning on?


I want to close this out with a cover of State Trooper performed by Earle from Austin City Limits in which he introduces the song by saying, “This one was written by a pretty good hillbilly singer from New Jersey named Bruce Springsteen.”  On Magic’s Radio Nowhere, Springsteen sings of trying to find his way home but only hearing a drone bouncing off a satellite that is crushing the last long American night and wondering if there is anyone alive out there. From Washington Square Serenade, Earle sings on his song Satellite Radio, about wondering is there anyone out there…one two three…on the satellite radio and at the galaxy’s end where the stars burn bright are you tunin’ in and turnin’ on, and he begs some greater power to listen to him kindle the spark and answer his prayer. His lyrics reminded me a lot of the driver in State Trooper with his thoughts of radio’s jammed up with talk show stations, ‘It’s just talk, talk, talk till you lose your patience. Somebody out there, listen to my last prayer. Hi ho silver-o deliver me from nowhere.’ Earle’s version makes me think this is what State Trooper might have sounded like if Springsteen had recorded an electric, studio version with the E Street Band instead of the acoustic version we have on the album. We fans have heard of there being “electric Nebraska” recordings out there, and unless Springsteen digs deeeeeep into the vaults, we’ll never know the answer to that. But I do know that all of you are out there listening on the Satellite Radio…so on…. one…two….three, tune in and turn it up. Happy birthday Steve Earle, thank you for your music, artistry and voice. We’ll be out here waiting for your new album Terraplane set for release in a few months and maybe with any luck a new Springsteen album. Keep on rocking down Copperhead Road you hardcore troubadour.

State Trooper cover/Satellite Radio/Radio Nowhere




Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 5, 2007

Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle, Carnegie Hall, April 5, 2007


New Jersey/Tennessee Blues

In 1989, after the Tunnel of Love and the Amnesty International tours were over, Bruce Springsteen decided to make some changes in his professional and private life and try another set of possibilities. He called the members of the E Street Band to let them know he was heading in a different direction without them. Then he moved from his beloved New Jersey, the area that had anchored his life and was the setting for many of his albums, characters and songs, and moved west. As we moved into the 21st Century,Steve Earle moved away from Nashville, his Guitar Town, where he had recorded and written for many years, and moved to New York City. In the liner notes of Washington Square Serenade, Earle writes, “As long as there’s been an East and a West, Easterners have been heading West in search of fortune and fame and Westerners have periodically appeared at the gates and reported that it is, indeed, big out there! Of course, most of those who took Horace Greeley at his word never returned and not everyone who came to the city stuck it out but one man’s frontier is, after all, another man’s limit and it takes all kinds and all manner of comings and goings to make a village. Now that I have finally arrived in my own personal city of dreams and walked streets with names that I’ve heard sung all my life, I still don’t have any answers.” Both artists wrote songs saying goodbye to their pasts and each reference their past lives and songs. In Going Cali, Springsteen writes, “Like his folks did back in 69, he crossed over at Needles and heard the Promised Land on the line.” In Tennessee Blues, Earle says goodbye to Guitar Town, both the town and his first album.

Nebraska: The scariest album ever!!!

Again, according to my friend Jeff Calaway, Steve Earle was teaching as a guest lecturer at a university, played Springsteen’s album Nebraska for the class and then described it as the scariest album he’s ever heard. He also referred to Bruce as a “pretty good hillbilly from New Jersey.”

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive



In addition to all of his other talents, Steve Earle is one of the finest writers working today. In 2002, Earle published a collection of short stories entitle Doghouse Roses. In 2012, he published a novel, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive which is written from the perspective of Doc Ebersol, the doctor blamed for the death of country music legend Hank Williams. It’s incredibly well written with lots of great characters and descriptions of San Antonio, highly recommended. His memoir I Can’t Remember If We Said Goodbye is to be published on June 30, 2015 and I’ll be first in line to get a copy.

One of my favorite passages from I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive:

“Lonely’s a temporary condition, a cloud that blocks out the sun for a spell and then makes the sunshine seem even brighter after it travels along. Like when you’re far away from home and you miss the people you love and it seems like you’re never going to see them again. But you will, and you do, and then you’re not lonely anymore. Lonesome’s a whole other thing. Incurable, Terminal. A hole in your heart you could drive a semi truck though. So big and so deep that no amount of money or whiskey or dope in the whole goddamn world can fill it up because you dug it yourself, and you’re digging it still, one lie, one disappointment, one broken promise at a time.”


For Mary, My Old Friend

Ryan Hilligoss, January 4, 2015

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, Edgewood, Il

My old friend, you invited me in, and you treated me like kin

And you gave me a reason to go on

My old friend, thanks for inviting me in

My old friend, may this goodbye never mean the end

If we never meet again this side of life

In a little while, over yonder, where it’s peace and quiet

My old friend, I’ll think about you every now and then

Carl Perkins, My Old Friend

Christmas is over and a new year is dawning, with a calling for new beginnings and a fresh start. I received many gifts this year from my family, much more than I need but for which I am grateful, especially spending time with loved ones near and far. One gift I received this year was hearing a voice from the past, calling across the decades. My cousin Judy Bennett asked me to transfer a tape recording of her wedding ceremony from analog to digital. The event occurred May 27, 1961 in Humboldt, Illinois and the marriage was between Judy Hilligoss and David Bennett, and was recorded by family with a reel to reel recorder. While listening to the tape, I heard family members being interviewed including Judy’s mother, Mary Hilligoss, who was also my aunt. Her voice was much younger obviously, but her words and phrasing and humor and laughter were unmistakable. Hearing it was invaluable to me for many reasons including family history and historical interest, but mostly because Mary was a friend of mine who I haven’t heard since she passed away in 2007.
The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

The Cook Family: Letha, Ed, Mary and Ruth, left to right.

Coincidentally, her birth date recently passed on what would have been her 92nd birthday. Mary Francis Cook was born December 28, 1922 in Humboldt, Il, daughter to Edward and Ruth Mitchell Cook. Her older sister Letha Cook Hilligoss was my grandmother and Mary and Letha married brother, Les and Robert Hilligoss respectively. So, Mary was my double aunt, either way you look at it. Humboldt, Illinois, for those not from the area reading this, is a small town along US Route 45 and the Illinois Central Railroad line in east central Illinois, south of Champaign, home of the University of Illinois. Mary and family spent many years living in Mattoon before Les moved his family to Edgewood, Il, south of Effingham, as part of his employment on the railroad.
Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

Les Hilligoss and Mary Francis Cook on their wedding day

As I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with our extended Hilligoss family during birthdays, celebrations, family reunions and especially trips made to either Phoneix, Az where my grandparents moved in 1970 or around the state when they visited us here twice a year. They had a RV they used for many of their trips and when they came to town, Sean and I would climb aboard and head on down the road for unknown destinations. Opening the door to the RV with grandma Letha Hilligoss aboard, you were drawn into a world filled with smoke from her long, brown cigarettes she chain smoked, the aroma of fresh coffee brewing in the percolator, and never-ending chatter, whether anyone was present and listening or not. Often times, she would launch into a crazed rant filled with wild hand motions and unnamed characters, and Sean and I would look at each other not knowing if she were really talking to us and whether we should respond or not. More often than not, after travelling to some other towns, we would wind up in Edgewood to see Mary where they would park the RV and we would stay for 2 or 3 days before returning home. Grandma and Mary would spend hours at a time in the kitchen drinking coffee, doing the daily crossword puzzles and clipping coupons and sending in rebates, while we kids were left to our own walking the property, mowing the grass or watching TV. Due to their love of coupons, rebates and scoring a great deal, a simple trip to the IGA grocery store in Effingham which would have taken most people 15-30 minutes, turned into a three-hour journey as Letha and Mary walked down the aisles, closely inspecting each package they eyed, ensuring they had a coupon or could send in a rebate.

It was during these trips as a boy that I developed an appreciation and connection to the idea of extended family and a connection to the past and where I come from. During these trips, I developed a bond with my aunt Mary that lasted from childhood, through my college years and into adulthood when I had my own family. Mary and my grandmother Letha were like two peas in a pod in many respects including their love of coffee, smoking, cross words and family. However, their personalities were a contrast. Grandma was comfortable in her own skin, said what was on her mind with no filters, talked a blue streak, and walked through her life with her chin out letting the world know she wasn’t scared of much and would not back away from a situation. As a child growing up on her family farm, Letha would often times be ordered to handle chores in a certain fashion by her father Ed Cook, and if they weren’t handled the way he wanted, there would be consequences. And instead of taking her punishment and walking away, she would get back up again, stick her chin out as if to say, here I am, go ahead and knock me down again and I’ll just get back up. Mary on the other hand always had a grin on her face, was a little more quiet, had a nice, easy laugh. I always had the impression she looked up to her sister and often times followed her lead with caution.


Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

Mary Francis Cook Hilligoss and Letha Cook Hilligoss. Hilligoss reunion, Tuscola, Il 1992?

While attending  Eastern Illinois University, the Harvard of Coles County, from 1993-1998(yes I graduated in 4 years for anyone doing the math but stayed for a 5th year to pursue journalism), I made many a 60 mile trip down I-57 to see my aunt on weekends. Some trips were with my grandparents, before grandma died in 1996, but many were on my own. Being a fairly quiet and introverted person, going to Edgewood for a few days allowed me some peace and quiet in a warm, cozy home and some good companionship with my aunt who, after my grandma died, I thought of as a surrogate grandmother. I would usually call her mid-week and tell her I was thinking about coming down if she wasn’t busy, and usually she didn’t have any plans. When I arrived, she always had a weekend supply of baloney and cheese and Coke and coffee waiting for me. If I came down on Friday night, she worked in the kitchen at the Edgewood Opry from 6-10pm. The Opry was a local version of the Grand Ol’ Opry with local musicians filling the stage and local singers coming up from the audience and singing their favorite song whether gospel, folk or country. Despite my introverted nature and stage fright, I even got up and sang on two different occasions, Waylon Jenning’s Luchenbach, Texas and Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land. Luchenbach got a nice round of applause while This land only got polite gold claps which confused me at the time but I now understand that the crowd was made up of local farmers who owned and farmed hundreds of acres and might not have been keen on Woody’s lyrics about signs saying no trespassing and private property being a violation of what he saw as the country standing for. The musicians were happy to have a place to play live and the talent level of the singers ranged from excellent, trained vocalists to….hmmm…how to put this politely….not stage ready. On one occasion, I went along with my grandparents and I sat next to my grandfather Robert Samuel Hilligoss and when I rather screechy singer came on, he turned to me and said, “God is that awful….but since I can’t sing, I guess I better keep quiet.”

I would spend time studying and reading while she watched tv and then we’d work the crossword puzzles after the newspapers were delivered. Then we might head into Effingham for dinner at Neimerg’s Steakhouse and a trip to the grocery store. Or we might have lunch with her girlfriends at Pat’s Restaurant in Farina. Occasionally on Saturday nights, we would pick up two of her friends, Virginia and Mary, and drive to Vandalia for the Saturday night dance in the local roller rink, complete with sawdust on the floor and a local band supplying songs from Hank Williams, Patsy Kline, Ray Price and Kitty Wells. It was there I learned to dance the waltz to Waltz Across Texas With You, the Texas Two Step to Lovesick Blues and the polka to The Orange Blossom Special. The only time I ever danced with my grandmother Letha was at the roller rink. I can’t remember the song the band played, but I can still see the smile on her face as we twirled around the floor. On Sunday mornings, Mary would fix me breakfast consisting of coffee, toast and Malt O Meal, still my favorite, and only, hot cereal. After watching some television, her favorite shows were Walker, Texas Ranger, Dr.Quinn Medicine Woman and Reba, and helping with some chores around the house and in the yard, I would pack my bag, say goodbye with a hug, head back to school and then return for another visit every few months. Looking back on it, I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed going there so much was she gave me the space and understanding to be who I was at the time, as a young adult.

"I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. "Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

“I cannot forgot from where it is I come from, cannot forget the people who love me. “Mary, Ryan and Kim, Edgewood, Il

After graduating and moving back to Godfrey, I still visited but not as often and not as long. Then when I moved to Wheaton to be with my then girlfriend, and now wife of 14 years, Kim and I would make the 4 hour drive down to spend a day or two visiting. After our kids were born, Graham in 2004 and Aurora Eva Rose in 2006, we still made visits, usually for the Hilligoss reunion in June and the annual fish fry held at Mary’s house for her family every October. While I had developed my own family and home, the connection to family remained and I made the time and took the energy to spend moments with who was important to me and my life, just Mary and both sets of my grandparents and uncles and aunts did throughout my life. The last time I saw Mary was in a hospital after me, my dad, uncle Rick and brother Kevin had visited her at her assisted living facility and she had a mini stroke. Before the ambulance took her away, she looked at me and had no knowledge of who I was at that moment, but knew who my dad was due to her mind and memory playing tricks on her. After she was taken to the hospital and had recovered, I went in to see her and she looked at me with eyes of recognition and smiled and told me she was glad I was there. After asking about where Kim and the kids were and telling her they were back home in Cortland, she told me in her quiet, forceful but loving, and grandmotherly manner, “Go home and take care of those kids.” She always knew what was important and how to say it.

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary, Ryan and Graham Ronald Hilligoss

Mary passed away in 2007, but I think of her often, especially when I make myself Malt O Meal, when Kim makes Mary’s jello/yogurt whipped pie, when I hear an  old country song on the radio or when I sit in her Lazy Boy recliner that sits in my living room. Mary was many different things to many different people throughout the stages of her life: daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, grandmother and aunt. And while she was indeed my aunt on two accounts and served as my grandmother in spirit after Letha passed, what she meant most to me was a friend, and that is what I miss most. I miss calling my friend on the phone on a random Wednesday afternoon and hearing her answer with a hearty, “Yeaahhhh,” when she recognized my voice. I miss going to the Edewood Opry and working with her in the kitchen on Friday nights while we listened to the music of local musicians and talked to friends and neighbors. I miss having lunch with her at Neimerg’s in Effingham. I miss dancing with her at the roller rink in Vandalia. I miss seeing her fill her hummingbird feeders that hung outside her windows. And I miss working on crossword puzzles with her at the kitchen table and watching her gaze out the window as her mind searched for the right words to write down and became lost in her thoughts and memories. And now as I type this, I gaze out of a window lost in my thoughts of Mary, my old friend.

Below is a poem that my grandmother Hilligoss kept on her refrigerator at home in Phoenix and I think was a message left by her to her family. I read this at both her and Mary’s funeral services. Often times when outdoors and I feel a good, strong wind blowing in my face or when I see bids and geese flying through the air, I think of them both and other family members we have lost, and I know they are still with us.

Do not stand at my grave and weep 

I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow. 
I am the diamond glints on snow. 
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. 
I am the gentle autumn rain. 
When you awaken in the morning’s hush 
I am the swift uplifting rush 
Of quiet birds in circled flight. 
I am the soft stars that shine at night. 
Do not stand at my grave and cry; 
I am not there. I did not die.
Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary's lazy boy

Ryan, Graham and Rory Hilligoss in Mary’s lazy boy

Birdman: A Thing Is A Thing


By Ryan Hilligoss, November 17, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Coming through people, I gotta a package here. Michael Keaton from Birdman, walking down Broadway in his undies

Coming through, I gotta a package here people. Michael Keaton from Birdman, walking down Broadway in his undies

I went to see Birdman last week with my good friend Dave, The Reverend Mr. Black, and after the movie ended, we watched the credits waiting for what he said might be the ultimate homage to super hero movies which would be a quick snippet of footage leading viewers towards the next series installment such as appears at the end of The Avengers. He asked me to reel off some adjectives to describe the movie. But all I could jokingly verbalize was the word heavy….heavy man… because I was trying to wrap my head around the movie and still am five days later.

The film is visually stunning as it is made up of several long shots stitched together as the camera follows the actors and stage crew around backstage of St.John’s theater in NYC where Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is a washed-up Hollywood actor who once played the superhero Birdman in three blockbuster movies, before leaving the multi-billion-dollar franchise. More than 20 years after Birdman, Riggan wants to reinvent his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play, an adaptation of Raymond Carver‘s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love“. Throughout all of this, Riggan from time to time hears his voice as Birdman either mocking or bolstering him; he also performs small feats of telekinesis and levitation when he is alone.

In the voice of Birdman, "How did we end up here? It smells like...balls."

In the voice of Birdman, “How did we end up here? It smells like…balls.”

Co-writer and director Alejandro G. Inarritu, director of prior films Babel and 21 Grams, wrote the script specifically for Keaton and sent it to him to read. According to Keaton who recently appeared on Letterman, he read it and called the director and said, “Are you making fun of me?” Keaton starred in the first two Batman movies but rejected the lead role in the series’ 3rd installment along with a reported $15 million dollars. In Birdman, Riggan is asked by a critic if he’s not just doing this production so he can’t be accused of being a washed up actor of comic book films and he responds, “That’s why 20 years ago I said no to Birdman 4. “As a child, I grew up watching Keaton star in films including my favorites, Mr.Mom, Gung Ho, Night Shift and of course Beetlejuice. While he has been acting on a regular basis since walking away from the Caped Crusader, he is probably known by most young viewers today as the voice of Chick Hicks from Cars and Ken from Toy Story 3.

In Riggan’s dressing room, on his mirror is taped a quote, “A thing is a thing. Not what is said of that thing.” This concept speaks to me as an overriding theme of the movie, story and philosophy. In one great scene, Riggan has a confrontation with his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone, who he employed after she was released from rehab as his production assistant. Riggan tells her that this play is the first time he’s been able to do something important. “Important to who”, she asks and then tells him that he and his “art” are not important to anyone just like no one else in the world is important and he better get used to it. Ouch!!! For an actor struggling with issues of ego, celebrity, and popularity versus art, coming from his daughter, these comments left a visible impact on his face and psyche. A thing is a thing reads to me as an argument for intrinsic, inherent value versus social or critical value. As an artist, if you want to make a movie, play, story, poem, etc, you craft it for the value of the act and end result itself and how that speaks to you the artist, not the praise or criticisms of viewers and critics.

Which leads to my favorite scene of the movie. After a preview of the play, Riggan and fellow actor Mike Shiner, played by Edward Norton as a narcissistic, pain in the ass ‘serious actor’, go into a bar for a drink. Shiner looks around the bar and says to Riggan, “See that lady at the end of the bar who looks like she just licked some homeless guy’s ass?” Riggan, after being accosted by a passing family for a photo with “the guy who used to be Birdman”, sees the lady and responds,” Jesus, she does look like she just licked a homeless guy’s ass. The lady in questions is the drama critic for The New York Times who informs Thomson that, come opening night, she will destroy his efforts and close down his play. Why? Because she claims he, and by association many other film stars who have turned their efforts to drama on Broadway, are children, not true actors who are taking up valuable theater space that instead should be used for productions of more merit and value. Riggan explodes,informs her he is sacrificing everything with this production including his money and career, asks her what she has ever done with her life, grabs her notebook upon which she is writing her review and picks apart her writing, and finishes by telling her to shove her paper up her wrinkly…tight, old ass.

The writing in this exchange is sharp and seems very specific and possibly is a reflection of how Inarritu feels about culture critics in general and more pointedly, critics of his past films that have pointed out his self-importance and piety. And I wholeheartedly agree with him on this point. Professionals and lay persons abound with catty, negative comments on the artisitic works of others, but what have they ever done? Have they ever written a short story, play, poem? Have they ever learned a musical instrument and performed or recorded any songs? Have they ever written a script, directed a movie or acted on stage? Mostly, no, their efforts are saved for savaging the efforts of others. The only cultural critic I am aware of who made a successful transition into culture itself has been Jon Landau who began his career as one of the first rock and roll critics, writing for Rolling Stone and other publications, and then helped produced records for The MC5, Jackson Browne, and Springsteen’s Born To Run, after which he became Springsteen’s manager.

The same goes for government and politics. Talking head pundits on never-ending news channels and op-ed writers prattle on to eternity about politicians, government officials and civil institutions, but have they ever ran for elected office or served in a public role? Rush Limbaugh sits in his nice shiny studio, speaking into his golden microphone while collecting his $50 million a year for pontificating and blithering about what legislators should or shouldn’t be doing. Well, if you know so much, then why don’t you build a campaign organization, run for office and if you win, implement your great ideas. Until then, write a check and go to hell. I was reminded of Theodore Roosevelt’s speech, Citizen In The Republic, given in 1910, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

But I digress.

I am The Birdman...awwww...

I am The Birdman…awwww…

The movie is very dark at times… actor is hit on the head by a falling light during rehearsals…..but also very funny, ie fight between Riggan and Norton’a Mike Shiner. But it is also touching in its depiction of private, personal moments between Riggan and his ex-wife and daughter. It touches on celebrity, ego and narcissism as well as social media. In the middle of a  preview performance, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theater while getting his robe wedged in the doorway, and after losing everything but his tighty whities, has to speed-walk  down a crowded Broadway in order to get back into the theater, where he finishes the preview to a confused and perhaps delighted audience. During his walk, people ask for autographs, take pics, yell at him that he is both great and that Birdman sucks.  The video of his speed walk becomes a viral hit with over 300,000 views within an hour. He becomes a sensation again through the power of a social media he had not liked and openly mocked up until that point. His daughter shows him the video and tells him, “This is power.” Indeed.

Michael Keaton will hopefully receive an Oscar nomination for this role and if I were allowed to vote would so in a heart beat over Bill Murray who is now appearing in St.Vincent. While Murrary does a great job amidst a fine ensemble including Melissa McCarthy and first time actor Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver Bronstein, I watched it with a smile of familiarity knowing Murray was playing a loose characterization of himself, of which we’ve seen many times over in prior films. St.Vincent is a fine film, well written, direct and acted and Murray has some heartbreaking scenes, but in Birdman, Keaton turns in his finest acting performance and I recommend you see it ASAP. Run to your nearest theater, or fly. if you have the wings of a superhero.

Odds and ends:

Great piece on Keaton from CBS Sunday Morning

The Unbroken Circle: In Memory of Herman Francis Hilligoss

By Ryan Hilligoss, November 2014

Herman Francis Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, 2011

Herman Francis Hilligoss and Ryan Barr Hilligoss, 2011

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
Thanks to the human heart by which we live
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears

William Wordsworth, Ode on Intimations on Immortality.

The Broom Corn King

The Broom Corn King

(This is an expanded version of comments I made at the funeral service for Herman Francis Hilligoss who passed away recently at the age of 86. Herman was my fraternal great uncle, brother to my grandfather Robert Samuel Hilligoss, and great great uncle to my two kids, Graham Ronald Hilligoss and Aurora Eva Rose Hilligoss whom we named respectively in honor of my deceased uncle Ronald Edwin Hilligoss and Eva Wright Hilligoss, out of respect to my grandfather and Herman and the rest of the family.)

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel released their signature song, Mrs. Robinson. The song, originally titled Mrs. Roosevelt as an ode to Eleanor Roosevelt, shot to #1 on the record charts and later won them a Grammy. An earlier version was released the prior year as part of the classic movie, The Graduate. In the song, Paul Simon wrote the lyrics:

Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you

What’s that you say Mrs. Robinson

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away, hey hey hey

Joe Dimaggio, who never suffered from a great sense of humor or irony, did not care for the lyrics or the song. Dimaggio told many friends, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, I didn’t go anywhere, I’m right here.” Paul Simon meant the lyrics as a tribute to the baseball legend and what he represented to so many. Simon later explained to Dimaggio himself at a restaurant that “the line was meant as a sincere tribute to his unpretentious heroic stature, in a time when popular culture magnifies and distorts how we perceive our heroes.”

When I consider the word hero, I think simply of someone you admire for one characteristic or another, someone you observe and say to yourself, there’s someone I can learn from and try to follow in their footsteps a little. I have a lot of heroes in my life, some famous from the world of sports like Lou Gehrig and Bob Gibson, musical artists and authors, but also some from friends and family around me. And Herman is one of those that I’ve admired over the years for his gentle nature, that twinkle in his eyes and his kindness. Empires rise and fall, dreams fall apart, farms fail, time passes, our lives are adrift, but kindness never fades. Herman’s kindness to me and everyone else will last forever.

from left to right: Herman Francis, Ronald Edwin, Robert Lee and Richard Eugene Hilligoss. Phoenix, Az 1988

from left to right: Herman Francis, Ronald Edwin, Robert Lee and Richard Eugene Hilligoss. Phoenix, Az 1988

He was a humble and modest and good and decent man, a true gentleman, and one of the nicest people I’ve been lucky to have in my life.  He lived a quiet life, a decent life, a good life, a meaningful life filled with family and friends. He knew what was important in life and did the best he could to raise a fine family.The measure of a person can be counted in many ways, but one of the most important is how they treat others as they go through life. And Herman treated me like a friend and a grandson and for that I will forever be grateful.

Once he and I were talking about some of the trips he had taken over the last couple of years including to Hermann, Missouri to attend his naval reunion. I asked him if he had any interest in visiting any sites overseas like Rome or Berlin. He simply replied, “No, I’ve seen everything I want to see right here in North Okaw Township.” My exposure to Herman and Aunt Virginia started in childhood through family reunions held in Tuscola, Illinois and trips to see him at home either with my grandparents or with my father. Once my grandparents took me and my brother Sean with them in their RV during one of their annual trips from Phoneix back to Coles county amd we stayed in the RV which was parked across the street from Herman’s house in Silver Springs. One memory I will aways carry is for looking for worms in the dry earth so we could fish in the Flat Branch behind Herman’s house. Finding no worms, we used plastic worms which we kept losing to a snapping turtle swimming lazily in the brown muck. As I grew up and got older and while attending Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, I decided to go see my uncle and aunt on my own volition without being prompted by anyone else. I guess what kept drawing me back over the years, especially after my own grandparents passed away, was how Herman connected me to past generations and the land from which my family had come from. He was a tangible reminder of where we came from and who we are as people. Without a connection to our past, we go through life adrift, cut loose from what anchors us to our center.

Four generations: Father's Day 2010, Humboldt, Il cemetery

Four generations: Father’s Day 2010, Humboldt, Il cemetery

As we go through life, we collect a wide assortment of human souls around us, whether by blood or friendship, and once they are gone from us, they can never be replaced, no matter how much we try. Herman was many things in life to many people including a son, brother, husband, father, grand-father, uncle and father in law just to name a few, but what I will miss most is my friend.

Herman, Ryan and Dad

From Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

I depart as air…

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want to see me again, look for me under your bootsoles

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall bring good health to you nevertheless

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,

Missing me one place, search another

I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

While I know he’s no longer here on earth and his spirit has moved on, his love and the spirit of his memory will carry on because as a friend of mine likes to say, as long as we’re here and you’re here, then he’s here. As those around us that we’ve grown to love pass away, all we can do is take the best parts of them, those parts that we love and admire and pass them on to those that follow in our footsteps. In closing, instead of saying goodbye, I will just say, I’ll see you further on up the road my friend.

Herman Francis Hilligoss with Aurora Eva Rose, Graham Ronald and Ryan Hilligoss, Humboldt, Il

Herman Francis Hilligoss with Aurora Eva Rose, Graham Ronald and Ryan Hilligoss, Humboldt, Il