Joe Hill’s powerful words have moved countless artists to blend politics and song and this dramatic tribute to the Industrial Workers of the World songwriter and activist Joe Hill, features songs by and about Hill performed by Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Earl Robinson, Paul Robeson and others. An absolute treasure for anyone interested in American folk and labour music.
Joe Hill, poet, songwriter, and organizer is arguably the most popular working class artist in American culture. This album, named after Joe Hill’s famous last words before he was executed by the State of Utah, is a testament to his power as a musical and cultural figure. It also attempts to secure his place in our memory. The album consists of two elements, Joe Hill songs performed by important interpreters and songs about him, again in historically important performances. Among the former, number Harry McClintock singing ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, Pete Seeger doing ‘Casey Jones (The Union Scab)’ and Cisco Houston’s version of ‘The Tramp’. The latter category contains the more varied and more interesting contributions. Among these are poet Kenneth Patchen’s spoken word piece ‘Joe Hill Listens to the Praying’, Billy Bragg singing Phil Ochs ‘The Ballad Of Joe Hill’ and both Paul Robeson and Earl Robinson performing the Robinson-penned number Joan Baez made her own, ‘Joe Hill’ with its immortal lines
“I dreamed I saw, I dreamed I saw, Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” says he, “I never died” says he
“I never died” says he”
He was born Joel Emmanuel Haggland in Sweden, the ninth son of a railroad worker. His father died when he was eight years old, and he went to work in order to help support his mother and six siblings. When Hill’s mother died in 1902, he emigrated to the United States. Until 1910 practically nothing is known of Joe Hill’s life. It is known that he was in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake, as he sent back an eyewitness account of the horror and devastation caused by this disaster to Sweden, where it was published in a local newspaper. Somewhere along the line he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom and this was shortened by work mates to Joe Hill. By the time he finally surfaces in San Pedro, CA, in 1910, it is clear that he had been working a long time as a migrant laborer, and was on intimate terms with the suffering and misery experienced by the families of his fellow workers under the conditions of this era.
In San Pedro, he joined the International Workers of the World, or as popular slang had it the ‘Wobblies’, a Chicago-based labour organization which set itself up as a worldwide advocate and agitator for the cause of worker’s rights and the unionization of industries. Towards the end of 1910, Hill published a letter in the IWW’s in-house publication International Worker, identifying himself as a member of the Portland chapter of the IWW. At the beginning of 1911, Hill is found in Tijuana, attempting to mobilize an IWW offensive to assist the overthrow of the Mexican government. From then until January 1914, Hill’s trail once again runs cold, this time not due to a lack of information, but to an impossible wealth of Joe Hill sightings; Hill became such a legendary ‘wobbly’ that he is accredited as being present at practically all IWW functions nationwide.
It was during this time that Hill established himself as the main event of IWW rallies, singing songs he had written that pilloried capitalist bosses, scabs, glorified the ordinary American worker, and urged on the creation of unions. The lyrics to these songs were published in the IWW’s ‘Little Red Song Book’ and achieved wide distribution therein, but most of the thousands who got to know such songs as ‘Union Maid’, ‘The Preacher And The Slave’, ‘There Is A Power In The Union’ and ‘Workers of the World, Awaken!’ heard them sung by Joe Hill in person. The lyrics were usually simple, easily memorized and set to tunes that were already known to the assembly at the IWW meetings. As Joe once said
“A song is learned by heart and repeated over and over and if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read.”
In January 1914, Joe was apprehended in Salt Lake City on a entirely circumstantial charge of murdering a local grocer who also happened to be a retired law enforcement officer. During the trial he offered little to no evidence in his own defense, and was more openly hostile to the volunteer attorneys representing him than he was to the prosecution, who sought the death penalty. Hill was convicted and executed by a firing squad on November 19th 1915, despite the protestations of the Swedish Ambassador to the United States, Helen Keller, and President Woodrow Wilson himself, all of whom had pleaded with the governor of Utah for a new trial for Joe. His own unexplainable behavior under these dire circumstances suggests that, though innocent of the charge, he had resigned himself to the notion of becoming a martyr for the cause of the unions. After his execution, the coffin containing Joe’s body was hastily transported to Chicago, where it was joined by a crowd of 30,000 mourners in a massive IWW funeral procession through the city streets.
The thirty or so songs that Joe Hill wrote were once thought so dangerous that many would dare not sing them in public or risk arrest. To this repertoire was added an additional powerful anthem of the left, entitled ‘Joe Hill’ and written in 1925 by the poet Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson. This was sung at workers’ rallies in the 1930s and 1940s, when millions were in attendance. Although the red-baiting of the 1950s would eventually decimate the American left, by this time, Joe’s work had already left its mark on such singers as Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston and Pete Seeger and other left-leaning folk singers who would further influence Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and those who would become leading voices in the 1960s protests against the Vietnam War. Famously Baez began her appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Festival by singing ‘Joe Hill’ as her first number.
“If the workers took a notion they could stop all speeding trains; Every ship upon the ocean they can tie with mighty chains. Every wheel in the creation, every mine and every mill; Fleets and armies of the nation, will at their command stand still”
Unfortunately Joe Hill never found himself in a situation where he could be recorded and his influence was mainly spread from singer to singer. Only in the late ’90s did historians take much interest in Joe Hill as a performer and artist and the study has already revealed much about the origins of politically oriented folk songs in America. It appears that Joe Hill was truly the first protest singer in America and certain of his specific metaphors, such as his notion of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ are encountered repeatedly in subsequent generations of folk songs that deal with social and political change.
Excellent both as an album and as a cultural document, we will not forget the important legacy Joe Hill bequeathed to us. It’s a beautiful album for a beautiful man. This is REAL subversion, from real people, native Americans and immigrants like Joe, who weren’t playing games or striking poses, but who really saw things as they are and really wanted to change the world. Joe Hill was a hard core working class true American hero.
“I will die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning – organize”
Great review and very important to keep Joe’s legacy alive. Victory to the workers.