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.

Postscript
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

Birdman

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…..an 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

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Long May You Rock: Happy 65th Birthday Mr.Springsteen!!!!

We stand together shoulder to shoulder and  heart to heart

We stand together shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

Well, surprise, surprise, surprise, happy birthday to you Mr. Springsteen on this very special day. Greetings from Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. My name is Ryan Hilligoss, better known as “Ryan from Chicago” to regular listeners of E Street Nation and The Wild and The Innocent. While the music and programming on E Street Radio are excellent, what Dave, Jim, Vinnie and others, but more importantly, the listeners have truly accomplished has been creating an incredible community and collection of friends who have come together through this channel and developed true, meaningful friendships through your music. And because of this community, I was given the opportunity to speak today.

I’ve been thinking and stewing about this for a few weeks because what do I say to someone I’ve listened to on a daily basis for a very long time? What do I say to an artist whom I’ve admired since I was a ten year old growing up in Alton, Illinois where I was fortunate to have a cool, older brother who drove me around with The River, Nebraska and Born In The USA blasting from the tape deck as we rolled down the windows and let the wind blow back our hair? What do I say to someone whose music and art I’ve listened to and absorbed as part of who I am as a person all this time. What can I say that at this point in your life and career, that you haven’t heard a million times over? In the end, all I can say and would like to say, simply, is thank you.

In 1951, JD Salinger published his classic The Catcher In The Rye, in which his teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield had this to say, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” And while most of your “books” have been albums and songs, the same applies to me and you. With each song and album, I’ve listened, absorbed the music and words, reflected and wanted badly to call you and ask you questions or just let you know how much I enjoyed the music and the moment. Despite the fact I’ve seen you in person several times in concert, we’ve never met and probably never will, but by Salinger’s definition, we share a friendship over space and time built on the moments of time I’ve spent with you over the years watching or listening to a master craftsman at work. The point of culture and art is to connect us to our core humanity through the artists we come in contact with, and when we share those moments with our friends and family around us, those artists and their work become the fabric of our lives, our minds and our souls.

Well down at the end of Lonely Street is Heartbreak Hotel

Well down at the end of Lonely Street is Heartbreak Hotel

I have a blog site, unionavenue706 on wordpress.com where I write a lot about your music and a lot of other artists including Elvis Presley whom we both admire for his music, his impact on American and world culture, and for his personal story and his dreams of living in a better land where all my brothers and sisters walk hand in hand.  After Elvis died, you said “It was like he came along and whispered some dream in everybody’s ear and somehow we all dreamed it.” One of my favorite songs of yours is Follow That Dream in which you took one of Elvis’s songs and made it your own. Just like in Jack of All Trades when the character says, “So you use what you’ve got, and you learn to make do. You take the old and you make it new”, you took an existing piece of art, rearranged the music, slowed down the tempo to dramatic effect and added new lyrics to make a masterpiece in which you sang about following our dreams no matter how distant they are and no matter where they lead until we can find the love we need.

You once said, “I believe that the life of a rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves, and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones.” In 1965, Elvis met the Beatles  at his Bel Air home and the five of them spent  a few uncomfortable hours making small talk and playing a little music. Elvis was too racked with self-doubt and low self-esteem around the four Liverpool Lads who had stormed America, and the Beatles were in awe being in the same room with one of their idols. You’ve long played in concert with many of your inspirations such as Sam Moore, Darlene Love and Chuck Berry, and now, you’re returning the favor to those who grew up idolizing you such as Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem, The Dropkick Murphy’s and Eddie Vedder to name a few. You allow those younger musicians an opportunity to make a human connection, to “make that dream real.” Bruce Morello Vedder Chicago That is the key difference between the two: Elvis’ artistry ended at a certain point in time, but you have continued to grow as an artist and as a performer. At the end of Elvis’ career, he could no longer look into the faces of his audience and see an accurate reflection because he could no longer see himself. Every night that you are on stage, you look into the faces of his crowd and make connections with the eyes and minds of your fans, bring fans onto stage to dance and sing, get help on vocals from younger fans on Waiting on a Sunny Day, and in the penultimate connection, literally puts your body and faith in the hands of his people by crowd-surfing from the back of the pit area back to the stage.  You put your faith in your fans, and as they pass you forward, hand over hand, they repay that faith and belief in the promise of rock and roll a thousand times over.

The Boss in the hands of his fans, literally and figuratively

The Boss in the hands of his fans, literally and figuratively

Like Elvis and his music did for earlier generations, you’ve helped your listeners create true friendships that stretch across states, regions, the nation and across oceans. You’ve helped foster a sense of community filled with fairness, respect and concern for those around us, and that has formed what I like to call the collective unconsciousness of E Street Nation which holds all that is decent and true and righteous down on E Street!!!! On many occasions, you’ve talked about wanting to have a conversation with your fans on the topics and subjects that concern you and the world around us. Well, you’ve been having that conversation with us for 50 years now and it’s been one hell of a conversation, one filled with joy, laughter, tears, a lot of good times but also a lot of dark times. We’re always here with open ears, open minds and open hearts listening to you talk and in turn, you listen to us talk back whether in concerts, interviews, letters or messages like this. The next time you’re ready to start another conversation with another project or album, we’ll be here waiting.

Good companions for this part of the ride. Ryan Hilligoss with Patricia Berdish

Good companions for this part of the ride. Ryan Hilligoss with Patricia Berdish

During your concerts, often times we raise our hands in a sign of solidarity with you and the band but also in solidarity with our friends and strangers around us. As time goes by, together, with these hands, we’ll continue to search for the things that come to us in dreams, wherever they may lead and we’ll find the love we need. We’re all riding together on a universal Mystery Train towards a land of hope and dreams. A train that carries saints and sinners, losers and winners, the brokenhearted, lost souls and sweet souls departed, but in the end, we’re all good companions for this part of the ride.

Thanks Bruce. Happy birthday and may you have many more. We’ll be seeing you up the road.

(Expanded text of message recorded as part of a special project headed by Kevin Farrell and to be played on Sirius/XM E Street Radio to celebrate Springsteen’s 65th birthday.)

Come Along and Ride This Train: The Music of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen

By Ryan Hilligoss and Shawn Poole, February 26, 2014

“Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him- the greatest of the greats, then and now. Truly, he is what the land and country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul. This is a miraculous and humbling thing. Listen to him, and he always brings you to your senses. He rises high above all, and he’ll never die or be forgotten, even by persons not born yet- especially those persons- and that is forever.” Bob Dylan

Two great American artists, The Man in Black and The Freehold Fireball

Two great American artists, The Man in Black and The Freehold Fireball

Come Along and Ride This Train

Today marks the birthday of Johnny Cash, the legendary Man in Black and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of fame and lastly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Much like other early recording artists, Cash’s musical style included country, gospel, bluegrass, gospel, and rhythm and blues, helping form one portion of early rock and roll at the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee, otherwise known as Sun Studio. Cash directly inspired, collaborated with or helped nurture the careers of musicians as diverse as Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Snoop Dog, Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, and Bruce Springsteen. And my friend Shawn Poole and I have collaborated to explore the musical connections between these two great American artists.

Like Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash came from very humble beginnings and went on to become a major figure in American music. Born in Kingsland, Arkansas in 1932, the family soon moved to Dyess, Arkansas as part of an FDR Works Progress Administration program to inject money into the economy. At a very young age, Johnny began working with the rest of his family in the cotton fields of what many called “The Sunken Lands” due to it’s tendency to flood and remain swampy, making the cultivation even more difficult than it already was. Part of the Dyess colony provisions was to purposefully exclude blacks as part of social engineering studies. But Johnny still heard a wide variety of musical styles on his parent’s radio as he, his brothers and sisters lay on the linoleum kitchen floor trying to cool down after working in the hot, humid cotton fields. On the radio he heard music coming from faraway places he could only imagine like New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis, and Nashville. He absorbed different sounds including the country and western of Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold, gospel blues of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, bluegrass of the Louvin Brothers, the pop of Bing Crosby, and some “race music” broadcast from Memphis, his future home. What mainly caught his ear and fired his imagination were all the great artists who performed on The Grand Ol’ Opry such as The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers. Of those days, Cash wrote, “Nothing in the world was as important to me as hearing those songs on the radio. The music carried me up above the mud, the work and the hot sun.”

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The Johnny Cash TV Show aired from 1969-1971 and always opened with a segment of Johnny riding a train and inviting people to come ride along on a journey. Video would play over Cash singing: Come along and ride this train/Cross the mountains, prairies, reservations, rivers, levees, trains/come along and go with me/I know where there’s people you would like to get to know/I heard a story that I’d like to share with you/I will show you things that I’m sure you’d like to see/come along and ride with me/Come along and ride this train. In introducing his television show, Cash did as he always did throughout his career which was to invite all people of every shape, color, stripe, and background to come along a great journey and discovering new sights and thoughts. Over his 50 year career, Cash sang for and about people from all walks of life including the poor, prisoners, working class, forgotten Natives, criminals, blacks and whites, rural and urban, liberal and conservatives, presidents and paupers. As Tom Petty once said, Johnny was friends with Presidents and he was friends with people at the bus stop. Johnny also became a major figure in country music and even folk music, greatly influencing many artists. Like Bruce, Johnny had a very broad vision of American music and he tried to expose his audience to many different musical styles and artists. Also like Bruce, Johnny remained concerned with the problems of common people, even after he became wealthy and famous. In following their unique artistic visions, both Johnny and Bruce truly have walked the line.

So now let’s start our musical tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 82nd birthday with a set of some of Johnny’s most famous songs covered by Bruce Springsteen. Fittingly, our first selection is Bruce’s beautiful version of I Walk The Line, recorded live in Landover, MD on September 13, 2003. It was the opening song of Bruce’s first concert after the news broke that Johnny Cash had died.

The version of Ring of Fire played here was from a November 18, 2009 concert played by Springsteen and the E Street Band in Nashville, Tn and includes the terrific, mariachi horn work of Curt Ramm. Ring Of Fire was co-written by Merle Kilgore and Johnny Cash’s wife, the late, great June Carter Cash. We’ll be discussing some more about Ring Of Fire a bit later when we get to Bruce’s song We Are Alive.  The other clip played was Bruce’s version of Give My Love To Rose, featured on the Johnny Cash tribute album Kindred Spirits. The version you heard includes Bruce’s spoken intro to the performance from when it first appeared on the 1999 All-Star Tribute to Johnny Cash television special. Bruce’s version of Give My Love To Rose was done in the same style as much of the material on his 1995 folk/country-influenced album The Ghost of Tom Joad. Speaking of that album, our friend and fellow Springsteen fan Jeannette Amodeo found online a very cool image of an undated, handwritten note from Bruce Springsteen to Johnny Cash. The note, most likely written to accompany a copy of The Ghost of Tom Joad album, reads as follows: “Hello, Big John. Here’s my latest! It’s got a lot of country and folk influences and I thought you might get a kick out of it. All my best. Always, Bruce Springsteen.”

A 'Dear John' Letter

A ‘Dear John’ Letter

Nebraska: Will The Circle Be Unbroken

According to Robert Hilburn in his recent biography, Johnny Cash The Life, In 1983, amidst a series of difficulties in Cash’ career with Columbia due to lagging sales and poor promotion on their part, Cash headed into the studio to record a new album. Cash brought with him a handful of songs he had written, but when he played them for his producer Brian Ahern, the producer was not impressed and instead played him two tracks from Springsteen’s Nebraska, Johnny 99 and Highway Patrolman. Cash was familiar with Springsteen and he seemed vaguely familiar with Johnny 99, but he had not even remotely considered recording it. According to Hilburn, “Cash loved the Springsteen songs for much the same reason he so admired Dylan’ songs: their daring, compassion, and commentary. He also enjoyed being back in the creative center of pop and rock, the music of young America. But, country radio ignored the album Johnny 99. The album never had a chance. In retrospect, all the parties may have been overly optimistic. You couldn’t have been any hotter than Springsteen in 1983. He was in many ways the, rock and roll equivalent of Johnny Cash, not just a record maker but a heroic figure who music and image reflected many of the traditional values of America. Even so, rock radio shied away from the downbeat Nebraska. Whereas Springsteen’s last three albums had sold a total of 14 million copies, Nebraska struggled to reach the 1 million mark.”

In 1992, Springsteen told Rolling Stone magazine that he listened incessantly to Cash’s Sun recordings in the days before he wrote his album Nebraska, a work haunted by the spare, gloomy sound of Cash’s early records. If you listen to Springsteen’s songs such as State Trooper, Mansion On The Hill, Nebraska, or My Father’s House, you can definitely hear echoes of Cash’s early recordings such as Give My Love To Rose, Folsom Prison, I Walk The Line and Train of Love. What is ironic here is that in 1983, both artists were simutaneously inspiring the other without the other’s knowledge. And the big old wheel keeps rolling around again. Cash’s covers of Johnny 99 and Highway Patrolman feature guitar work by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton, who’s played with Elvis Presley, Rick Nelson and hundreds of other artists, including Bruce Springsteen. Shawn recently had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing James Burton for Backstreets.com and James told Shawn that, like Johnny Cash, he loved to perform “Highway Patrolman.”

In 2003, Artist’s Choice, a series produced by Sony Music and distributed through Starbucks, released a Johnny Cash edition. The 14 track album consisting of handpicked selections from Johnny which begins with Hank Williams’ Lovesick Blues and ends with Mahalia Jackson’s His Eye On The Sparrow, and has a wide variety of other styles and artists in between including Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, Roberta Flack’s The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face and Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman. In the liner notes, Cash writes, “I just recorded a Bruce Springsteen song called “Further On Up The Road.” It’s from his The Rising album. I always have been a Springsteen fan, and my favorite album of his is Nebraska, and my favorite song of his is “Highway Patrolman.”

Further yet, in Johnny’s 2nd autobiography, Cash writes about his friendship with Bob Dylan back in the 1960’s and of visiting Dylan in Woodstock, NY. “Bob and I indulged ourselves in a lot of guitar picking and song trading. There’s nothing on earth I like better than song trading with a friend or a circle of them, except perhaps doing it with my family. As Bruce Springsteen wrote, ‘Nothing feels better than blood on blood.'”

"Johnny was more of a spiritual figure to me, always was." Dylan

“Johnny was more of a spiritual figure to me, always was.” Dylan

Included in that set was Johnny’s version of I’m On Fire which was recorded by Johnny in 2001 and was included as a bonus track on the album Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Our friend and fellow Springsteen fanatic Jeff Calaway also reminded us recently of how Johnny was among the first country artists to cover Springsteen. Johnny later listed Bruce among his favorite writers, saying that he drew inspiration from writers like Bruce just as Bruce and others had drawn inspiration from the music of Johnny Cash. “I want my songs to be as good as theirs,” Johnny said of songwriters like Bruce Springsteen. And who do we have to thank for turning Johnny Cash onto the music of Bruce Springsteen? His own daughter, of course. Shortly after Johnny’s first Springsteen covers were released, Rosanne Cash got to meet Bruce Springsteen in person for the first time, and he told her how thrilled and honored he was that her father had recorded some of his songs. She immediately replied, “Who do you think sent him Nebraska?” Before Johnny died in 2003, he gave Roseanne a list of the 100 of the most important songs. In 2009, she recorded 12 of those songs as part of her album The List including a duet with Bruce Springsteen, together singing beautifully on their version of the old Don Gibson hit, Sea of Heartbreak. Also below is a great clip of Roseanne talking about recording the song with Bruce and how he “was our dream date for the song”.

Bitter Tears: The Ballad of Ira Hayes

"Custer don't ride well anymore"

“Custer don’t ride well anymore”

In 1963, Cash scored his biggest hit to date in his career with Ring of Fire which peaked at number 1 on the country charts, crossed over to the pop charts and had made him one of the biggest selling country artists of the time. Most artists and record labels would keep pushing to maximize their hot streak by trying to score another big smash. In typical Cash fashion, he went in the opposite direction and chose to record a concept album on the treatment and troubled chapter in our nations’ history, the stories of the Native Americans.

Like other artists including Elvis who sold his back catalog to RCA in 1973 so he could form his own publishing house and record songs he wanted to sing and not what the label wanted, Sam Cooke who formed his own recording and publishing houses, and Bruce Springsteen who sued his former manager to obtain outright ownership over his own songs, Cash struggled for artistic autonomy throughout his career. Signed in 1955 by Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, Cash scored several big hits including I Walk The Line and Folsom Prison, but he grew frustrated with Phillips who refused to allow him to record any gospel or spiritual songs. Cash left for Columbia Records in 1958 on the sole reason that they agreed to let him record a gospel album.

While listening to artists perform in 1963 in Greenwich Village after a show in NYC, Cash heard native songwriter-performer Peter Lafarge sing several songs on the plight of his native people. Cash, always a student of history and current events, was transfixed and decided immediately that he wanted to work with Lafarge and record his songs. Cash got clearance from Columbia and tore into the songs with a vengeance his musicians had never seen before. The album Bitter Tears featured eight tracks including As Long As The Grass Shall Grow, Custer, and The Ballad of Ira Hayes which chronicled the travesty of the life of WWII veteran and hero who was part of the famous photo taken on Mt. Saribachi with Marines raising the flag. The album was not promoted by Columbia and radio stations around the country refused to play it for fear that their conservative listeners wouldn’t like the message and would no longer listen to the station. Cash was rightfully enraged and took out a full-page ad in Billboard, and in the blessed name of Elvis, well, he just let it blast. In his rambling screed, Cash lashed out with the famous question, “Where are your guts?” He also questioned people’s conscience by including American Indian rights among other civil rights issues of the time, “Ballad of Ira Hayes is strong medicine. So is Rochester- Harlem, Birmingham, Vietnam.” Despite radios quiet boycott of the album, it still sold well thanks to Cash’s own efforts in reaching out to friendly DJs and the fans directly by barn storming the country from town to town.

Recently, writer Douglas Bradley completed a story on Ira Hayes that is well worth the time and gives a lot more background on Ira Hayes story as well as Cash’s campaign to raise awareness of the issues of Natives. You can read it by clicking the imbedded link. Below you can hear Johnny sing Big Foot, recorded in 1972 and released on his America album. Cash wrote this song after going to visit the Wounded Knee Massacre site in South Dakota. Like Cash, Springsteen has used his artisitic freedom to speak out for those whose voices aren’t typically heard such as American Skin(41 Shots) which brilliantly opens a discussion on the roles of all parties involved in the Amadou Diallo incident in NYC in 1999, writing “we’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood, Youngstown which examines the end of the steel mills, jobs and a way of life for working class people in Ohio and everywhere, and Streets of Philadelphia which took a look at AIDS victims.

When The Night Winds Wail: Long Black Veil

We recently stumbled across this live version of Long Black Veil performed by Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band at their May 16, 2006 show in Amsterdam.  Long Black Veil was originally a 1959 hit recorded by country-music singer Lefty Frizzell, though it sounds as if it’s a much older folk song.  Johnny Cash performed a memorable version of the song on his classic album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.  Johnny also performed Long Black Veil with Joni Mitchell on the very first episode of his famous late-sixties television show, and now you’re going to get to hear Bruce & The Seeger Sessions Band’s beautiful take on the song, performed with verses sung alternately by Bruce and “The Chocolate Genius” himself, Mr. Marc Anthony Thompson.

A Shot Rung Out Across The Land: I Hung My Head

Johnny and Bruce each recorded unique versions of Sting’s song I Hung My Head. Johnny’s version was released on his 2002 release, American IV: The Man Comes Around. This was a perfect song for Johnny to cover, fitting in well with the grand Johnny Cash tradition of murder-ballads and story-songs like his first big hit for Columbia Records, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town. Bruce’s version, featuring some blistering guitar work, was performed live with Sting’s own band, including former E Street Band member David Sancious, at Sting’s 60th Birthday celebration and released officially on Sting’s free iPad app. According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, Patti Scialfa gave that awesome version one of the best descriptions you could give it. According to Dave, Patti called it “Nebraska on crack.”

" I've given the dogs names, Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redmption is  the white one with the black stripe. That's kind of the theme of the album, and I think it says it for me too. When I was bad, I was not all bad. When I was really trying to be good, I could never be all good. There would be that black streak going through."

” I’ve given the dogs names, Sin and Redemption. Sin is the black one with the white stripe; Redemption is the white one with the black stripe. That’s kind of the theme of the album, and I think it says it for me too. When I was bad, I was not all bad. When I was really trying to be good, I could never be all good. There would be that black streak going through.”

The American Recordings: The Phoenix Rises Again

In 1992, Cash was struggling at Mercury Records which was not promoting his albums, and for financial reasons, Cash was feeling  forced to play in Branson, a mecca for aging entertainers set in the foothills of Missouri. He told Rolling Stone’s Steven Pond, “You know, I’m doing what I feel like I was put on this world to do. I just want to do more of the same, but I want to do it better. I want to make some records that people will pay attention to, you know? My new stuff is going to be real sparse. Never more than four instruments in the studio at any one time. I’m gonna keep it real clean and bare, use today’s technology with my old simple sound, and hope to come up with something big.” Little did he know that two years later, he would again hit it big with recordings done at American, produced by Rick Rubin who was co-founder of Def Jam Records and had worked with many artists including The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Slayer, Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, not artists you would consider in the same style as Johnny Cash.

Cash and Rubin produced some of Johnny’s best work in decades and included American Recordings(1994), Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000) and America IV: The Man Comes Around (2002) and many others released after his death in 2003. At the time of their release, the albums received critical acclaim, commercial success and awards including the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Country Album for Unchained.

After the death of his beloved brother Jack when he was a boy, Cash became isolated and often times went out walking for hours as he sang to himself all the songs he heard on the radio, just trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. According to Cash, “The long walk home at night was scary. It was pitch dark on the gravel road, or if the moon was shining, the shadows were even scarier…But I sang all the way home….I sang through the dark, and I decided that that kind of music was going to be my magic to take me through the dark places.” Cash had been down many dark roads in his life fighting addiction, wildness, physical ailments, the deaths of family and friends, but through it all, he found the ‘magic’ in his songs to get him home. And during his time with Rubin, he went to some very dark places indeed with songs such as  Delilah’s Gone, The Mercy Seat and God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

The First Couple of Country, John and June

The First Couple of Country, John and June

Johnny and Rubin made inspired choices of songs to record including several new originals written by Cash as well as covers of musicians of a wide variety including U2, Neil Diamond, Trent Reznor, Tom Petty, Danzig, Dean Martin, Nick Cave, Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak and Bruce Springsteen’s Further On Up The Road. On the later albums you can hear Johnny struggling with his voice at times and you can hear him laboring to breathe at times. But as Rubin wrote in his liner notes to American V: A Hundred Highways released in 2006, “But in the end, his ability to convey words in a way the listener can truly feel and believe them is amazingly consistent. He was the master storyteller.”

At the time of his death in 2003, Johnny Cash was revered by a new group of fans including punks and hipsters, their parents and their grandparents. Johnny and June played at the Glastonbury festival in England. During his set, Johnny just sat on a stool, playing acoustic guitar by himself and was in awe of playing in front of 100,000 fans. They also loved June and The Carter Family classics she sang that night. As she came off the stage, a nineteen year old dressed in black, with tattoos, piercings and a Mohawk got her attention and politely said, “Mrs. Cash you really kick ass.” Johnny wrote that on days when June was down or discouraged, he would tell her, “Mrs. Cash, don’t worry about it, you kick ass.” Just as Johnny found new fans at the end of his life and career, Springsteen, who is 64 this year, has seen something similar occur to him, especially at live shows around the world. As he looks out on the crowd each night, he sometimes sees punk rockers, body piercings, ear gauges and mohawks. He looks out and often times sees three or maybe even four generations of fans, and often times he brings a little one onstage  to sing with him on Waitin’ On A Sunny Day. As he said recently on stage in Australia, “That’s good because they are the future of rock and roll.”

 

The Highwaymen: We’ll Stand Shoulder to Shoulder and Heart to Heart

In 1984, after being jettisoned from Columbia Records, the label he had produced album after album for 25 years, Cash formed the super group The Highwaymen with friends Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. What’s interesting about the song Highwayman is how coincidentally similar its subject matter is to that of Bruce’s song We Are Alive, a song that also was directly influenced musically by Johnny’s recording of Ring of Fire. In another interesting coincidence, Highwayman was written by the famous songwriter Jimmy Webb, whose music was a major influence on the kind of writing Bruce did on his Working On A Dream album. Give it a listen and see what you think

Johnny Cash served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and upon his return to the states, moved to Memphis after recognizing it for its central location of all musical styles and people. Cash tried several times to get a demo session with Sam Phillips at Sun Studios but was turned away. Cash decided to wait on the steps outside the door one morning so he could catch Sam going into work. Sam granted him a quick listen and was impressed with his voice and presence but did not care for the gospel music Johnny sang that first day telling Johnny that gospel music doesn’t sell. Sam told him to come back the next day with his backing band and some original songs. Cash returned the next day with his group the Tennessee Two consisting of Luther Perkins, no relation to Carl, on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass. They played a Cash original, written while he served in Germany, Hey Porter, the first of many Cash train songs. Phillips was bowled over and quickly recorded the trio in the studio. Phillips needed a B side and sent Cash home with instructions to write a “weeper.” Cash went home and got inspired while listening to the radio when he heard DJ Smilin’ Eddie Hill go through his on air rap, “We got good songs, love songs, sweet songs, happy songs and songs that make you cry, cry, cry!”

The signature Johnny Cash sound many call the boom-chicka-boom sound, and some call the ticky-tack sound, was honed in Memphis at Sun Studios with Cash playing rhythm guitar, Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass. According to Grant, “We didn’t work at that sound, it’s all we could play. Our inability had more to do with our success than our ability and I’m not ashamed of it.” The minimalist sound provided room for Johnny’s big, masculine booming voice. Perkin’s electric guitar style was basic, yet distinctive as it was used both as rhythm and a basic lead pattern, often times only using the top 3 strings. Grant’s bass playing was unadorned and plodding. More distinct was Cash’s acoustic rhythms which sounded like rustling paper which was achieved by threading a dollar bill through the strings. Between the three of them, the sound was that of a train heading down the tracks, clickity clack. It wasn’t strictly a country sound but included folk, gospel, bluegrass, and when they went up tempo, it was pure rockabilly and rock and roll.

Two great American visionaries, Sam Phillips and Johnny cash

Two great American visionaries, Sam Phillips and Johnny cash

The horn riff played in Springsteen’s We Are Alive, from his Wrecking Ball album, is openly credited as being a note-for-note recreation of the mariachi horns featured in Johnny Cash’s recording of Ring Of Fire,written by Johnny’s wife June Carter and Merle Kilgore. It was first recorded by June Carter’s sister Anita, but after it failed to become a hit, Johnny decided to record it himself after having a dream in which he heard the song played with mariachi horns. Legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement, who passed away in 2013, has been credited with coming up with the famous horn arrangements. Clement said, “Johnny didn’t conform to anything, except to to the world. At the time, having horns on a hillbilly record was kind of weird, and he thought I was weird enough to understand it. And he called me, thank the lord.”

Besides using Johnny Cash’s mariachi-horns sound, We Are Alive also has the same classic “boom-chicka-boom” bass patterns and guitar lines frequently used by Johnny Cash’s legendary Tennessee Two backup band at Sun Records. While Bruce has aptly described We Are Alive as “Johnny-Cash-meets-Ennio-Morricone,” there’s also much more here than a musical connection. The lyrical concern with social justice, the idea that the past remains very connected to the present and that the differences among us humans can be beautiful but never more important than our commonalities, are all key elements in the work of both Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. When I hear We Are Alive, I am reminded of something Sam Phillips said long ago when he heard Howlin’ Wolf sing for the first time in this studio, “Yes, yes. This is it for me. This is where the soul of man never dies,”

The Land of Hope and Dreams: Come Along and Ride This Train

Johnny once said, “There’s nothing that stirs my imagination like the sound of a steam engine locomotive. That lonesome whistle cutting through the night and that column of black steam throwing shadows across the land. When I was a boy, the trains ran by my house and they carried with them the promise that somewhere down the tracks, anything would be possible.” The truth of that statement is clear if you read through Cash’s discography which includes train songs of one kind or another from start to finish including The Orange Blossom Special, Train of Love, Come and Ride This Train, Folsom Prison Blues, I heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow, Rock Island Line, and John Henry.

On his show, Cash opened every episode with his song Come and Ride This Train in which he asked his viewers at home and in the auditorium to come with him so he could show them interesting places and introduce them to interesting people; this was a theme in his life as well as in his art. The Johnny Cash TV Show was a “big tent” affair.  Cash welcomed everyone onto his show from all kinds of musical styles, cultures, and backgrounds. He excluded no one and stood up to the network on many occasions including his insistence on singing Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning coming Down and including the lyric, “On a Sunday morning sidewalk, I’m wishing lord that I was stoned.” Between 1969 and 1971, 58 shows were broadcast on ABC including guests as diverse as Ray Charles, Mama Cass, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, George Jones, Bob Dylan, Bill Monroe, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. All of his guests performed on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, site of the Grand Old Opry, and the artists who, both musically and racially, made a diverse rainbow of society were introduced to Johnny’s fans, both live and on television, on a weekly basis, and helped open minds of people everywhere during a tumultuous time in our history. On the meaning of the show to the country, artist Steve Earle states, “I think it’s really hard for anyone to imagine now how important the Johnny Cash Show was, especially to people like me. The knowledge that Johnny Cash knew who Neil Young was validated me, made me feel like I wasn’t so weird because I listened to both kinds of music.”

Pops and Cash

Pops and Cash

In a very similar way, Springsteen has been creating a big tent of his own between his audience and the artists he has collaborated with and inspired. Just in the last few years, Springsteen has played on stage and recorded with a wide array of musicians ranging from Paul McCartney, Alejandro Escavedo, The Dropkick Murphys, Arcade Fire, Brian Fallon, Eddie Vedder and others. In a recent move, Springsteen has become inspired by, recorded with and added guitarist Tom Morello to the E Street Band for live performances.

In 1999, Springsteen wrote a new song entitled Land of Hope and Dreams as a way to start anew with the E Street Band of which they had not played together mostly for over ten years. He took the old spiritual folk tune of This Train, made popular by Woody Guthrie and Bill Broonzy earlier in the 20th century and changed the lyrics to be inclusive: this train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners, this train…thieves and sweet souls departed, this train carries lost souls and faith will be rewarded once the big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams. In live versions, Springsteen throws in lines from Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready when he declares, “You don’t need no ticket you just get on board.” Springsteen, much like Cash, wants all of us to ride along with him so we could be ‘good companions for this part of the ride.’ As Dave Marsh wrote in Born To Run, each night in concert during the closer of Detroit Medley,Springsteen used to cry out to the crowd that he saw a train coming down the tracks and all aboard. “Springsteen made the song an invitation and a command. It was a promise of adventure, and each night as I heard him sing it, the same thought came into my head, “where are we headed, where are we bound? Then I’d shake my head and smile and hop aboard myself. The answer was clear: together, we would try to make it home again.”

We’re all riding on a great Mystery Train of sorts as we go through our limited time on earth, but with a little luck and some understanding, we can ride the train together and be good companions.

Coda: I’ve Been Everywhere Man

At the end of his autobiography, Cash sits in his dressing room before a show, lost in his reverie and what Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory” as he thinks of all the places he has traveled, the people in his life and all the music and closes with this, the essence of The Man In Black, “It’s about time for me to go to work, or if you like, to go play. That’s what we music gypsies call it, after all. I’ll put on my black shirt, buckle up the black belt on my black pants, tie my black shoes, pick up my black guitar, and go put on a show for the people in this town.” Much like Johnny, Springsteen often wears black when on stage and he states that one of his biggest thrills in life is to blow into a town, tear it up on stage while congregating with his audience,forging bonds between himself, the musicians, the fans and each other, and then heading out-of-town headed for the next destination.

One of the last songs Johnny recorded prior before passing was the old standard We’ll Meet Again. According to Rick Rubin, Johnny, knowing his time was drawing near, insisted all the session musicians sing on the final chorus. He insisted his family be brought into the studio to sing on the chorus. And then much to Rubin’s chagrin, Johnny insisted Rubin step up to the microphone and join in as well. He wanted everyone to join and help him out in a family way. That’s the way Johnny Cash always wanted it, everyone hopping aboard and riding the train together. Yeah, we’ll meet again, don’t know where don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day. Thanks Johnny. As the songs goes, we’ll see you further on up the road.

For those of you reading this who have access to Sirius/XM radio, Shawn and I have teamed up to record a special guest DJ spot that will be aired on E Street Radio Channel 20 in which we discuss Johnny and Bruce and play a lot of good music. The schedule is as follows in EST: Wednesday February 26 at 4:00pm, Thursday February 27 at 5:00pm, Friday February 28 at 9:00am, Saturday March 1 at 6:00pm and Sunday March 2 at 11:00pm(roughly).

Two American Icons, Cash and Springsteen

Two American Icons, Cash and Springsteen

The Ties That Bind:  More connections, sources, quotes, brushes with greatness

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While there are many solid connections between Cash and Springsteen as evidenced above, there are several others that we hear in some of Springsteen’s other work.

– On his album Devils and Dust, Springsteen’s Leah contains the line: I walk this road with a hammer and fiery lantern/with this hand I’ve built and with this hand I’ve burnt” which appears to be a direct homage to Cash’s album art for his classic concept album Blood, Sweat and Tears.

-In his song Trouble River, Springsteen writes, “Trouble River, six foot high and risin'” which is a direct nod to Cash’s own Five Foot High and Risin’ which Cash wrote to chronicle an event that occurred near his family’s farm in Dyess.

– In Tougher Than The Rest, Springsteen includes this:” Love is a thin, thin line/But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you anytime,” which is a direct link to Cash’s classic I Walk The Line.

– On Springsteen’s Matamoras Banks, the guitar melody and story line share a fair resemblance, at least in spirit, to Cash’s Give My Love To Rose, which Bruce covered in 1999.

– And lastly, one of Cash’s most famous and popular songs was Jackson, performed with wife June Carter included the lines: We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout/We’ve been talking about Jackson ever since the fire went out.” Springsteen has stated that starting around 1977, he started listening to punk music as well as classic country as a way of gaining new perspectives. His 1980 album The River contained Jackson Cage which looked at a dying marriage amidst boredom of a suburban life and contained the lyrics: The cool of the night takes the edge off the heat.”

Johnny Cash’s America- Full length documentary directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgement Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God.” Johnny Cash

Rosanne Cash essay, Long Way Home.

Johnny on advice: “Don’t ask me for advice. Whenever someone does, I’m reminded of the worst advice I ever gave to anyone. Thank God Roy Orbison ignored it. Roy and I became friends from Day 1. When he came to Memphis from West Texas. I had met him in Odessa where he and the Teen Kings did a show on local television. He was a little discouraged by the lack of progress he was making and asked me what I thought he should do. I said, “Change your name and lower your voice. You sing too high and no one will ever remember Orbison.” (Music lovers all over the world, including Bruce Springsteen who was inspired by and played alongside Orbison can agree it was a good thing Roy ignored the advice of Johnny.)

I've been Everywhere Man

I’ve been Everywhere Man

Better Angels Of Our Nature: Lincoln Pardons 264

By Ryan Hilligoss

Abraham Lincoln in lifelike color

“Common looking people are the best in the world. That is the reason the lord makes so many of them.” A.Lincoln

This past week marked the 205th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, born on Knob Creek Farm near Hardin County(present day Larue County), Kentucky to parents Thomas and Nancy. The occasion reminded me of one of the biggest shocks of my life which came as I stood in a souvenir shop in Gettysburg, Pa where we had made a trip to see the battlefield and historic sites. The store owner who stood behind the dusty counter in period dress was talking to a customer and stated, “It’s too bad Lincoln wasn’t killed sooner in the war.” I’m sorry, I thought, what was that?? A thousand thoughts ran through my mind including, “It’s too bad someone else doesn’t get shot right now!!!Anyone have any theater tickets we can lend to this lady?” Having grown up in Illinois, The Land of Lincoln, as our license plates proclaim, Lincoln is part of our natural DNA through history, geography and osmosis. (As part of the process to obtain a driver’s license in Illinois, you also have to pass an additional quiz on Abraham Lincoln. If you don’t know Abe, you ain’t driving.)

Every 5th grade class in the state makes a yearly field trip to see all sights Lincoln including New Salem where he owned a store, ran the post office and made his first adult friends and began his political career. Springfield holds the home he lived in before moving to Washington, his old law office, the Lincoln Presidential Museum, and the Lincoln tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery (a necessary part of touring Lincoln’s tomb is rubbing Abe’s nose on the bronze bust which stands near the entryway and has been worn to a shiny finish after being pawed by generations of tiny hands). Right or wrong, to many, Lincoln is seen as a demigod that descended to the earth from on high during dark times long ago, and his black and white visage is burned into our minds from an early age. Along with his craggy face, we also have absorbed the standard narrative of slavery, the Civil War, the South and his martyrdom. Not much room in there for wishing he had been killed sooner. Being born so long ago and being dead now for almost 150 years, it is easy for some to think of Lincoln standing on a pedestal, or sitting encased in marble as a national saint or deity, watching over a nation from his seat at Delphi. But, he needs to be remembered and though of as a mortal, someone who arose from abject poverty from the woods of Kentucky and Illinois to lead the nation through some of its darkest hours. He was an earthly man with a family who felt heartbreak with the deaths of two young sons, suffered from clinical depression and worried and paced the floor of the War Department, waiting for the news that would bring an end to the rebellion and the bloodshed. He also had a direct impact on saving the lives of 268 Dakota natives in Minnesota, saving them from the hanging gallows. But first a little background info on The Rail Splitter.

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“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” A.Lincoln

Little known facts about A.Lincoln: Continue reading

Baseball’s Perfect Gentleman: Hank ‘The Hammer’ Aaron Turns 80

“I never doubted my ability, but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.” Henry Aaron

"I don't want them to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember me." Henry Aaron

“I don’t want them to forget Babe Ruth. I just want them to remember me.” Henry Aaron

Henry ‘Hammerin’ Hank’ Aaron was born 80 years ago today in Mobile, Alabama. Aaron’s family was large and modest and Aaron spent many years as a child helping his family pick cotton and developing the strong wrists and forearms that later allowed him to hit a baseball with such power and authority. Aaron loved baseball from an early age, but his family could not afford proper equipment so he used items he found in the streets and hit bottle caps with sticks. After excelling in football and baseball in high school, Aaron caught the attention of scouts in the Negro Leagues. He started to play as a 6 foot, 180 pound, shortstop. After relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana, eighteen-year-old Aaron helped the Indianapolis Clowns win the 1952 Negro League World Series. As a result of his standout play, Aaron received two offers from MLB teams via telegram; one offer was from the New York Giants, the other from the then Boston Braves. Years later, Aaron remembered, “I had the Giants’ contract in my hand. But the Braves offered fifty dollars a month more. That’s the only thing that kept Willie Mays and me from being teammates – fifty dollars.” What a powerhouse that lineup would have been for years and years with two of baseball’s finest. Aaron and Mays were two of the last players to make the transition from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues before they were disbanded due to integration.

I won’t rehash Aaron’s entire career or all of the records but here are a few that standout:

– Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982

– Named as 5th best baseball player in history by The Sporting News

– 25 time All Star

-National League MVP Award winner 1957

– 755 career Home Runs, currently second only to Barry Bonds whose career is highly suspect at this time due to the alleged use of performance enhancing chemicals

-3 Gold Gloves

– Holds record for most RBIs with 2,297

-Top five in career hits with 3,771

Henry Aaron Quote

Henry Aaron Quote

I have had a wide array of heroes in my life including writers, musicians, artists, family members and sports including Kurt Vonnegut, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Gehrig and Henry Aaron. Henry broke Babe Ruth’s record for home runs months before I was born in 1974. Starting in 1973, Aaron received hate mail by the sack full, death threats and public taunting by narrow, small-minded and mean-spirited racists who were offended that a black man would try to break the most sacrilegious record in baseball held by a white man. Aaron did what he always did best, put his head down, worked hard and kept on swinging while he kept his pride, dignity and humanity at the fore front. Since his playing days were well over by the time I was cognizant, I think what attracted me to him as a role model was his quiet dignity and the way he carried himself as a man. With his wit, charm, personality, quick smile and decency, Aaron gives those who watch him a path to follow and try our best to follow in his footsteps. His humor, grace and humility can best be defined by his self-evaluation of his golf game, “It took me 17 years to get 3,000 hits in baseball. I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.” Below is a video clip of Aaron appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1982, shortly after he was elected into the Hall of Fame. And he tells of hitting his famous home run and the White House invitation he received from President Nixon.

In Search of The Hammer

About 10 years ago, I was reading a profile on Aaron and learned that he owned and operated a Krispy Kreme Donut location a few miles from Turner Field in Atlanta, Ga where the Braves play their home games. According to the article, on most days, Aaron stops in the store on his way to Turner Field where he exercises and holds an executive position with the team. On his daily stops, he checks on operations, talks with staff and stays involved. Knowing that there was a chance we could meet a legend and maybe have a donut and coffee with him, I asked my dad and Uncle Rick if they wanted to go on a road trip for southern sights, and was answered in a resounding affirmative.

We made our way from St.Louis down to Atlanta, a drive of only 8 hours with Rick in the back seat reading a Kinky Friedman novel and dad narrating the entire trip on all things historical, political and memories from his own trips to the south including an early family Christmas day trip through Atlanta on their way to Florida years ago, “I remember all the kids riding their bikes out in the streets that morning on their new Christmas presents.”

Robert Lee Hilligoss, Richard Eugene Hillligoss and Ryan Barr Hiliigoss. Krispy Kreme, Atlant, Ga 2005

Robert Lee Hilligoss, Richard Eugene Hillligoss and Ryan Barr Hiliigoss. Krispy Kreme, Atlant, Ga 2005

Up early the next morning, we got some vague but promising directions from a maid at the hotel. After driving around for a few hours looking for one of many variations of a street, avenue, boulevard or place with Peachtree in the title, we pulled into the Krispy Kreme parking lot around 9:00. After buying our donuts and drinks, we sat around for a while, eyes peeled to the doors and heads jerking everytime someone walked in. The manager sauntered by, asked us if we were Braves fans and after telling him we were Hank Aaron fans, he told us hank had already been there today, really early in the morning and wouldn’t be back. After pouting for a good while and blaming all of our woes on Rick as we often do, we headed for the stadium to at least get some good scenery. We found the parking lot that covers what used to be Fulton County Stadium and found the spot where Hank’s record breaking blast from 1974 stands.

Robert Hilligoss and Rick Hilligoss, Atlanta, Ga

Robert Hilligoss and Rick Hilligoss, Atlanta, Ga

We also drove downtown and visited the boyhood home of Mrtlin Luther King Jr and the MLK Center with it’s history and resting place of the civil rights leader. The next day we headed for points south and visited Warm Springs, Ga where President Franklin Roosevelt often visited in an attempt to alleviate his polio symptoms in the warm natural waters. Roosevelt’s Little Whitehouse and museum tucked in the woods was a treasure to witness and to think of the beautiful surroundings that FDR enjoyed on his many trips and the trees he saw before he had his fateful stroke.

We went in search of a hero and legend and even though we came up empty on that score, we saw many other great things and enjoyed moments together as family and travelling companions. We didn’t get to meet Hank, but we talked about him a lot and that is stuff that legends and folk heroes are made of. Looking for one thing, we found others in their place. Searching for one road, we travelled a detour on the blue highways. All roads lead somewhere. And some are blazed by our heroes. Thanks Hank and happy birthday to one of the finest, classiest players and humans to grace the earth.

Henry Aaron

“Trying to throw a fastball by Henry Aaron is like trying to sneak a sunrise past a rooster.” Curt Simmons

Ryan and Graham in front of the Henry Aaron statue outside of Miller Park, Milwaukee, Wi

Here stands baseball’s perfect gentleman. Ryan and Graham in front of the Henry Aaron statue outside of Miller Park, Milwaukee, Wi