Joe Hill, America’s radical labor troubadour, was executed by firing squad in Utah after a contested murder conviction 100 years ago this week. A member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Hill traveled and performed widely, calling for workers to organize their efforts to improve working conditions. He connected workers’ collective struggles against the bosses to catchy lyrics—coining the anticlerical term “pie in the sky”—and to familiar musical chords.
As William Adler’s great biography of Hill (The Man Who Never Died) lays out, Hill subverted the appeal of Salvation Army Christian charity and their street corner band in Spokane, Washington, where they were promising heavenly redemption to hungry workers. In defense of harshly treated Washington state lumbermen, Hill took gentle songs like the Salvation Army’s version of “Sweet By and By” (which promised, “We shall sing on that beautiful shore. The melodious songs of the blessed…”) and turned those lyrics on their head:
“The starvation army they play, They sing and they clap and they pray 'Till they get all your coin on the drum Then they'll tell you when you're on the bum.”
According to Adler, by 1911 most of the “Little Red Songbook” was written by Hill. His renown grew with an “Industrial Union Singing Club” that gave workers voice. “In towns and cities … the brigade sang, beat the drum, and passed the hat for industrial unionism,” writes Adler. Meanwhile, the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” aggressively called for “One Big Union” on a socialist and syndicalist model. Their support for Russian revolution and opposition to U.S. intervention in World War I led President Wilson’s administration and newspaper editorials to label the union seditious.
After following friends to Utah’s copper country for work, Hill turned up at a doctor’s office one evening in January 1914 with a chest wound. At the same time, a grocery store manager and his son had been found shot dead after a robbery. The victims were said to have gotten off a shot. Circumstantial evidence—along with evidence of IWW radicalism—was enough for a jury to convict Hill of both murders. Sweden’s King (Hill had emigrated as “Joe Hillstrom) and many American labor leaders called for clemency and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson agreed, but state law governed the case and Utah’s governor did not relent. Hill was executed on November 19, 1915. His Chicago funeral was attended by some 30,000 union mourners. A reenactment of the funeral will take place Sunday November 22, 2015, in Chicago, along with a series of other events, including John McCutcheon’s performance of Joe Hill’s "Last Will" in Wisconsin, an Anne Feeney spectacular in Oregon, and a vigil by troubadours at the spot where Hill was executed in Utah.
Joe Hill leaves a number of legacies: There’s the ghost of Joe Hill, who telegrammed before his death, “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”—a sort of labor golem who will always come back to support workers and their strikes. In addition to Hill’s many tunes, there is the folk classic, “Joe Hill,” famously performed by Paul Robeson and later Joan Baez at Woodstock (here’s a recent version channeling Robeson by Gregory Brumfield of the Chicago Lyric Opera.
Then there are the stories from the tongues of folk rockers like Billy Bragg, who knows a little secret: Joe Hill’s ashes still circulate (the U.S. Postal Service found some in a confiscated mailing some 70 years after the fact) and are sometimes quaffed down by anointed new singers with a hoppy brew. Just ask Otis Gibbs, the latest to allegedly drink them down.
So if Joe Hill is still out there supporting the underdog, fighting for justice, where can readers track down the ghost? Here are a few songs for the long struggle.
According to College of Charleston ethnomusicologist Michael O’Brien:
Taking seriously the idea of Joe Hill not just as an advocate for workers, or as a progressive, but specifically as a socialist, I think that … American-flavored socialism is more palatable and attractive now than it has been in decades—the relative vitality of the Sanders campaign being maybe the most obvious sign. In terms of Joe Hill the musician or a specifically Joe Hill-like approaches … Janelle Monáe stepping outside of her role as pop musician and recording artist to create “Hell You Talmbout" [presented at Black Lives Matters rally in Philadelphia] struck me as one of the most interesting and effective uses of social media to create and shape musical protest in this country in the past few years. It's clearly designed to be a song for the march, not a song to listen to; it's structurally simple and catchy and just like the old "zipper songs."
In North Carolina, new songs are busting out, whether about intractable themes like Jim Crow, or forward looking ones like “Forward Together” (And Not One Step Back). Tom Morello commissioned a people’s “GuitArmy” for the Occupy movement. In Wisconsin, joining up with the Smithsonian-celebrated Solidarity Sing Along, North Carolina’s Moral Mondays leader Rev. Dr. William Barber took up Joe Hill’s street corner position to lead a song with Highlander Folk School-trained song leader Yara Allen. Here's a YouTube video of a performance that hasn’t been viewed nearly enough. Irish rockers, The Kissers, invented a brilliant lyric to remind Scott Walker that even the Koch Brothers can’t keep him in office forever (“Scotty, We’re Coming for You”). Lila Downs channeled Hill when she captured the darkness of maquiladora life years ago. Ryan Harvey leaves his construction job to roam around the country to sing his Washington DC-inspired “Tea Party on the Capitol Lawn.” Old hands Si Kahn and Tom Chapin have been fighting against salmon run degradation by gold mining interests in Bristol Bay, Alaska,
Finally, back to Joe Hill himself, a band of musicians and performance artists has come together to sing Joe’s story along with the stories of their own. Notable among them is Milwaukee’s L’il Rev, a school teacher who quit his job to spend more time on the road howling about injustice. Perhaps the best for last, the incomparable Anne Feeney, who has spread the word as gospel that when you go to jail for justice, she’d “like to shake your hand.”
And if you happen to be in Utah on November 19 (Hill was reported to have said that he “would never be caught dead there”), go join Kahn and McCutcheon, who, with others, have called for the current Republican Governor to pardon Hill. They report that will “stand vigil on the very spot where Joe Hill was tied to a chair, blindfolded and, with a paper heart pinned to his chest, shot to death by a firing squad. Anyone in the Salt Lake City area is invited to join."