Dreaming of Joe Hill: A Story, A Song, A Poem

Music, Poetry, Politics, Rambles

I talk about Joe Hill a lot. He’s a huge inspiration, politically and artistically, for people across the world over the last century, and I’m glad to be one of them. He was killed 95 years ago today, murdered by government firing squad for a crime he didn’t commit. But he never died. I wanted to write a post for Joe Hill, to remember him, to explain for those who don’t know the story why he’s so important, and to keep him alive. The story should be told again and again, so while you can find it in many places online, I don’t mind telling it again here. I’ve recorded a song — not by him but for him — and a simple poem came to me too.

Joe Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Sweden, October 7, 1879. He emigrated to America in 1902, working as a migrant laborer all across the country. Like many immigrants and migrant laborers in the 1900s, he became involved in radical labor organisation, joining the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, in 1910. At the time workers across the country were being betrayed wholesale by the American Federation of Labor, a so-called union that collaborated to suppress the struggle for vital workers’ rights. While the AFL would exclude immigrants, non-whites, women and poorer laborers, the IWW was open to all, struggling for all together. In the early years of the 20th Century, the IWW was crucial in winning many of the rights Americans take for granted today — and spread across the world, too.

Well, Joe Hill wasn’t just an organiser but a poet and songwriter, and that’s what he’s remembered for most now. Between 1910 and 1915 Joe Hill wrote dozens of radical songs which grew immensely popular throughout labor struggles. They were often based on hymn tunes — simple, memorable, and often bitingly funny. You might know The Preacher and the Slave (where the phrase “pie in the sky” comes from), Rebel Girl, or There is Power in the Union. Hill’s songs, because they were so easy to learn, so fun to sing, and condensed vital messages so skillfully, spread across the country, sung by crowds of workers regularly at strikes and protests. They became important for the movement: a way of keeping spirits high, of reminding everybody where they stood and with whom, and of spreading the word.

But Joe Hill made some enemies this way too. Chief among them was Amalgamated Copper ( later known as Anaconda Copper) who were involved in several of the toughest struggles, and of course the state authorities wherever he happened to be. So in January 1914, when in Salt Lake City former police officer John Morrison and his son were killed, he was shadily framed by the authorities for the murder. The evidence was as slim as slim could be: Joe Hill, in the city at the time, had suffered a gunshot wound the same night (as had four other people in the city), and had a red bandana (unsurprisingly for a labor organiser) as did, reportedly, the murderer. But, while strongly denying his involvement, throughout the case Joe Hill resolutely refused to reveal his alibi, even though it might mean his death. The story goes something like the folk ballad Long Black Veil: that Joe Hill had been with a married woman that night, was shot by her husband, and refused to testify in order not to disgrace them. Whether or not that’s true, who knows, but that’s how the story goes.

Joe Hill stayed in jail for well over a year, and people across the world — including Helen Keller and president Woodrow Wilson, of all people — demanded his release. There were vigils everywhere, and often the people gathered would sing Joe Hill songs — songs which he kept writing all the while. But the Utah authorities wouldn’t relent, and he was sentenced to death. Shortly before facing the firing squad, Joe Hill wrote his last will and testament in the style he’d always written:

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan;
“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.”

My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill

Joe Hill was taken out into the yard, blindfolded, with a paper heart pinned to his chest. His last spoken word on this world was “Fire!”

But the story doesn’t end there, and Joe Hill never died. His body was sent to Chicago for cremation: he’d said to his friends that he “didn’t want to be seen dead in Utah”. There was a public funeral, and thousands gathered in the street, where they sang his songs together well into the night. Packets of his ashes were sent to every IWW local (except those in Utah) and to supporters across the world. And his songs continued to be sung, and the struggles he took part in continued, and the victories he helped win continued to inspire people. His life and work continued to be an inspiration to political songwriters from Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs to Billy Bragg and Utah Phillips. And that’s why we say he never died. That, and the song, in a very humble rendition by me, which was written in his memory around 1930 by Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson:

And the story doesn’t even end there. Here’s my favourite postscript (and long may the postscripts continue). In 1988 it was discovered that an envelope had been seized by the United States Postal Service in 1917 because of its “subversive potential”. The envelope, with a photo affixed, was captioned, “Joe Hill murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915”. The Chicago IWW laid claim to the envelope, scattered some at sites of struggle, but also followed up a suggestion by Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman: portions were given  modern day Joe Hills Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked to be eaten. Billy Bragg did indeed eat his, and still carries Michelle Shocked’s packet wherever he plays. So Joe Hill is there, too.

I care about Joe Hill because of his significance, and because it’s a good story, and because remembering him helps us to remember all the many labour martyrs whose names and stories we don’t know, but also because of what his approach to music means. Joe Hill wrote songs for people to sing and for a political purpose: he wrote simply, directly and vitally. He wasn’t afraid of sincerity or of satire: he just sung what he thought, and what needed to be sung. Would that I, or any of the artists of all media around now who claim to be political, had the courage and skill to be so honest and direct. So I make no apologies for the corniness of the following poem, which I’ll leave you with (though I do apologise for its other weaknesses). It’s not a very artful poem, and it’s not for print but for performance, and not for performing anywhere but just where it’ll help us in our struggles. I’ve performed poems on blockades and on top of a siege tower; I like the way they can keep our spirits high. This poem is for the moments when a protest or strike has just been broken, when we’re feeling exhausted and dispirited and desperate, when it seems we will never win. It’s just for me, really, because Joe Hill helps me stand up again.


A singer I never knew
shakes my shaking hand,
reminds me where I stand
with whom.

They shot his paper heart
and crumple mine with news
of broken fights. We lose,
we start

again, we make a plan
to strike once more the spark,
to howl into the dark

A singer I never knew
shakes my shaking hand,
reminds me where I stand:
with you.

Solidarity forever!

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