THE BRIEF, REVOLUTIONARY LIFE OF JOE HILL
By John Pietaro
Let there be a “free speech fight” on in some town, and the “wobblies” converge upon it, across a thousand miles, and fill the jails with champions.
And singing. Remember, this is the only American working class movement which sings. Tremble then at the IWW, for a singing movement is not to be beaten... They love and revere their singers, too, in the IWW. All over the country workers are singing Joe Hill’s songs, “The Rebel Girl”, “Don’t Take May Papa Away From Me”, “Workers of the World, Awaken”. Thousands can repeat his “Last Will”, the three simple verses written in his cell the night before execution. I have met working men carrying next their hearts, in the pockets of their working clothes, little boxes with some of Joe Hill’s ashes in them. Over Bill Haywood’s desk in national headquarters is a painted portrait of Joe Hill, very moving, done with love…I know no other group of Americans which so honors its singers… (1)
-John Reed, ‘The Liberator’ magazine, 1918
Joel Emmanuel Haaglund (1878-1915) was—and remains--the guiding force of the Industrial Workers of the World and stands as a vision of revolutionary arts for all of the labor movement. His execution at the hands of a corrupt reactionary force is recalled each November 19 and Hill’s legacy is preserved with each strike, each job action and every time radical labor sings out against injustice as a unified choir.
A model for the fighting cultural worker, Joe Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most lasting pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave”, “Casey Jones, the Union Scab”, “There is Power in the Union”, “Mr. Block” and “Where the Fraser River Flows”, in addition to those cited by Reed in the above article, amidst an stream of others. He performed on piano, guitar and various other instruments, composing songs in bars and IWW halls at night, so that he would have them ready for union meetings, pickets and other functions the next day, spreading the word of this international industrial union through music. Hill came to the US from Sweden as a young man and saw firsthand the terrible conditions workers had to endure in the first part of the twentieth century; shortly thereafter he pledged allegiance to the cause of the IWW. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me---organize”. Hill, for all the mythology that surrounds him, has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches; his life and the frame-up which ended it have been principal to the labor historians’ repertoire.
IWW members Dean Nolen and Fred Thompson’s detailed booklet on the Wobbly bard offers considerable insight, even if some of it remains shrouded in the Joe Hill legend. While they cite that Hill’s first years in the United States were often a rather desperate attempt to find employment (he became something of a “wharf rat”), their first accounts of his cultural work date back to 1906. Hill was then living in San Francisco and chronicled the great earthquake for his hometown paper. Living in New York later, he worked as a porter by day and played piano in downtown saloons by night. But much more to the point,
The earliest parody written by Hill that we know of went to the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”, a Salvation Army favorite. It was already in circulation before it appeared in the 1911 edition of the IWW songbook (2)
The IWW’s official historical document, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology describes Hill’s cultural work thusly:
Hill’s songs and writings articulated the simple Marxism of the IWW Preamble and the Wobbly philosophy of “direct action…Wobblies, socialists, communists, AFL-CIO members transcend sectarian differences to sing Joe Hill’s songs and share his lore.” (3)
John Greenway’s groundbreaking study American Folksongs of Protest tells of Hill’s first possible encounter with the Wobblies as well as his presentation of “The Preacher and the Slave” to the IWW:
One evening late in 1910 Joe Hill walked into the Portland, Oregon IWW hall with a song he had written to the tune of the popular Salvation Army gospel hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”. He gave it to the secretary of the local, George Reese, who handed it to Mac McClintock, the local’s “busker” or tramp entertainer. Mac sang it to the men idling in the hall and the tremendous applause that greeted its rendition convinced Reese that they had something. He and McClintock revised the song, and printed it in their little song leaflet which two years later was adopted by the IWW as the official songbook of the union. Hill was invited to join the Wobblies, and so began his fabulous career. (4)
Greenway rather notoriously derided Hill in this 1953 book, which—in the midst of the McCarthyism surrounding radical movements of the time-- offered a rather dogged criticism of some of the edges of Left music history. He describes Joe Hill as one “who was responsible for his own beatification” and with “an almost unparalleled flair for self-dramatization” (Greenway page 189). However, within the negativism of Greenway’s curmudgeonly viewpoint, he offers examples of other perspectives, namely that of Ralph Chaplin, perhaps the Wob’s second most important cultural worker. Greenway quotes from Chaplin’s 1938 autobiography, Wobbly, in which he describes an encounter with Hill’s cousin in a Cleveland, Ohio. Chaplin wrote that it was past midnight when
…an IWW lake seaman tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving and he asked me if I wanted to get the full story of Joe Hill’s life. “Joe’s cousin is here”, he said. “His name is John Holland. Buy him a drink and he’ll tell all”…John Holland turned out to be deeply-bronzed and somewhat inebriated deep-sea sailor whose blue eyes and blond hair contrasted strikingly with his complexion. He had a true mariner’s taciturnity, plus a classic Swedish accent. Word by word and drink by drink, I got the story out of him and wrote it down in my notebook… (5)
Chaplin, via John Holland’s account, explained that Hill came to this country from Sweden in 1902, when he was twenty years old. He’d left Sweden after the death of his mother and, landing in New York City, found work as a porter in a Bowery saloon among other odd jobs. Hill and his cousin made their way to the West Coast, with a stop along the way in Chicago. Residing, finally, in San Pedro California, Joe Hill worked as a longshoreman as well as on steam freighters and it was at this time that he was said to have first joined the IWW. Chaplin, of course, also wrote about Hill the musician:
He could play almost any kind of musical instrument and delighted in improvising satirical parodies of well-known songs. At the Mission Church, 331 Beacon St, San Pedro, he struck up a friendship with Mr. Macon, the director. There was a piano in the mission, where Joe Hill, between jobs, would sit by the hour picking out the words for his parodies line by line, to the amusement of his fellow maritime workers. He would polish up the verses at night and eventually assemble them into songs. (6)
Chaplin’s source clarified that Hill was unlike most of his co-workers in that he spent little time carousing in bars or dating women. Holland would come home at night after socializing and Hill would be, scribbling verse, “twisting the hair on his forehead with his finger as he figured out the rhymes”, Holland told Chaplin. And in 1910, during the Southern Pacific Railroad strike, Hill was inspired to write his “Casey Jones the Union Scab”, which first brought him into prominence as a radical songwriter. Chaplin added that Hill was always surprised that his songs would in any way have become popular with the workers. (7).
Joe Hill was a self-taught, fairly rudimentary musician and considering the circumstances in which he learned to play music, as well as the limited time he had to compose it, his output was surprisingly thorough. Joe Hill did not begin writing this music till approximately 1910; he was arrested in 1913, hence he experienced some three years as an active Wobbly songwriter. For a rustic musician, who labored at physical jobs and then served in the all-consuming role as union organizer, there couldn’t be any time to study music theory and harmony, or to ponder over melodic motifs and hooks. His music was born of the moment in which he lived—and he fought.
Celebrated labor movement figure Philip Foner, who authored a multi-volume set on United States labor history amidst a catalog of other such texts, first published a work on Hill in the 1960s. In The Case of Joe Hill, Foner clarified Hill’s music education as it were. He quoted an excerpt from a letter that Hill wrote to Katie Phar, a ten year-old girl who’d written him during his 1915 incarceration, telling the Wobbly songwriter that she sang his songs and was now studying music formerly. Hill responded with encouragement for the child’s interest and told her
…I wish I had a chance to take music lessons when I was a kid, but I was not fortunate enough for that because I had to go to work at the age of 10, when my father died, and I had no money to spare for music lessons, but by trying hard I picked up what little I know about music without lessons. You see I’ve got music in my blood and it just comes natural to me to play any kind of instrument. (8)
Hill also spoke of his own lack of musical training in a 1914 interview. Foner quotes him as stating that:
There are some defects in the harmony of my compositions, but that is because of my lack of technical training. I am a man of little education and my modest accomplishments are due to a natural taste and some native talent in that direction. I have written lots of verse and songs and composed the music for some of them. Most of the poems are of a revolutionary character and have been adopted by the revolutionary forces, such as the IWW and the Socialist organizations. (9)
And Foner, too, wrote of Hill within the realm of the IWW songbook, clarifying that the song book was an outgrowth of the Wobblies’ leaflets brandishing radical cartoon, poems and slogans produced by the IWW’s Propaganda Leagues and Industrial Education Clubs. The song books, in the form we know of today, were first mass-produced in 1912 and Hill was well represented therein. Foner quotes Hill’s endorsement of the song collections:
…if a person can put a few cold, common-sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness out of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science. (10)
As has been widely told, Joe Hill was accused of murder and armed robbery in a Salt Lake City case which remains fogged by inaccuracies, coercion, a corrupt police department and a manipulative single-minded press reporting on this trial held in a kangaroo court. Hill was convicted after a lengthy trial (during which he was confined) and sentenced to death by firing squad. During Hill’s murder trial, the self-righteous prosecutor was sure to cite his songs’ inclusion in the IWW Song Book as seeming evidence of his guilt, if only by association with the then-feared organization. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, a reporter described Hill’s character via his music, stating that his “songs and verses have been adopted by the national organization and are used as revolutionary songs”. (11)
And then, in another edition of the same paper, continued in this vein:
The song book of the IWW, under the captions ‘Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent’, contains a total of thirteen songs by Hillstrom. All are parodies of either popular or sacred music and all are of an inflammatory nature. (12)
Hill’s legend loomed large over this brief period of time. According to Foner, he became immediately successful with the publication of “Casey Jones, the Union Scab” and by the book’s 1913 edition Hill was not only its leading contributor but remained at the top of the group of Wobbly musicians. His songs were so widespread that they were cited in court during an earlier trial, that of the Wheatland hop workers. In this case, the strikers were loudly singing Hill’s “Mr. Block”--a song about predatory employment agents and a trusting, passive worker—on the picket, and were violently attacked by a sheriff’s posse. The workers of course were on the defensive in both the assault and then during the trial, charged with rioting. The district attorney trying the case stated that Joe Hill’s song, “itself was a disgrace to organized labor and a slam at the name of Samuel Gompers” (13). This in a time in which the American Federation of Labor was still seen as a rogue organization by business interests and reactionaries, and twenty years before federal protections for union organizers would become legislation, yet the powers that be heartily embraced the FAL union in contrast to the revolutionary Wobblies. Foner also reminds us that the press was wont to describe Hill’s songs as “sacrilegious” and “inflammatory”, on a regular basis, and often used these descriptions during the time of his murder trial as a means to accuse him of murder. That is the extent of the impact of material penned by Joe Hill.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, famed radical, union organizer, Wobbly and (by 1919) a founder of the Communist Party, was a serious proponent of Hill’s works; he wrote “Rebel Girl” in her honor, but actually dedicated it to the cause of all women workers. Foner quotes Flynn’s 1915 statement about Hill, one written with eloquence and appreciation shortly before Hill’s execution:
Joe Hill writes songs that sing, that lilt and laugh and sparkle, that kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit and quicken the desire for fuller life in the most humble slave. He has put into words the inarticulate craving of ‘the sailor, and the tailor and the lumberjack’ for freedom, nor does he forget ‘the pretty girls that’s making curls’. He has expressed the manifold phrases of our propaganda from the gay of Mr. Block and Casey Jones to the grave of “Should a gun I ever shoulder, ‘tis to crush the tyrant’s might’. He has crystallized the organization’s spirit into imperishable forms, songs of the people—folk songs. (14)
Eugene V. Debs, the nation’s most celebrated Socialist and radical of the 1910s, offered the highest praise to Hill during the time of the Wobbly’s imprisonment. He wrote in an article in the American Socialist:
Joe Hill is of a poetic temperament and is the author of songs of labor of genuine merit; he is of a tender, sympathetic and generous nature and utterly incapable of committing the crime charged against him (15)
Hill’s last written statements, composed of course in his final hours awaiting his execution, are perhaps his best loved. As he was interviewed by a reporter on November 18, 1915 he was asked about his possessions. Hill replied that he needed to write a will, that which has become seen for the poetry inherent in it, “Joe Hill’s Last Will”. He sent it out to his defense committee with a note that read, “Tell the fellow workers for me to waste no time in mourning, but to organize our class and march to victory” (16). He also wrote to Big Bill Haywood, where he included the classic line: “Goodbye Bill. Will die like a blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize”. His gallows humor also shown through the moment when he asked Haywood to have his body transferred as, “I don’t want to be found dead in Utah”.
Most touching is Hill’s communiqué with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, where he wrote, “Composed a new song last week, with music, dedicated to the Dove of Peace. It’s coming. And now, Goodbye, Gurley dear. I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel”(17)
Ever the radical, Hill actually spoke directly to the firing squad just seconds before his execution. Standing blind-folded, apparently filled with the burning anxiety one would associate with such a moment and in preparation for the hail of bullets about to be released, Hill angrily shouted out at the marksmen, “Yes, aim! Let her go! Fire!”. One wonders what went through the minds of the militia as they fired through this bold exclamation.
Hill’s sad and unjust execution was condemned widely. Upon learning of his death, Emma Goldman, the anarchist leader in New York, contemptuously wrote: “the state of Utah has polluted itself with the blood of Joe Hill” (18)
As per Hill’s last request, his remains were brought to Chicago for the funeral and later cremated. His ashes were separated into small containers and dispersed to every state in the nation---all except Utah, of course. Local press incredulously wrote of the funeral service, with one newspaper reporter commenting on how his “death was celebrated with songs of revolt”, while another added:
The funeral was unlike anything held in Chicago before. The red flag floated unmolested at every turn. …There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices joining in on songs written by Hillstrom. (19)
Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology offers historic information from the pages of the program for Joe Hill’s funeral of November 25, 1915, West Side Auditorium, Chicago:
An unspecified vocal quartet opened the proceedings with “Workers of the World, Awaken”, and this was followed by “Rebel Girl” performed by Jennie Wosczynska. And then “Fellow Workers” performed three numbers, “There is Power”, “Stung Right” (Hill’s anti-war song) and “The Preacher and the Slave”. An unspecified song was next sung by John Chellman and then this was followed by the funeral oration (by Judge O.N. Hilton of Denver). An unspecified song in Swedish followed (uncredited singer) and then there were two spoken addresses—one by James Larkin (of Dublin, Ireland), the other by Bill Haywood. The memorial service was closed off by Wobbly musician Rudolf von Liebich performing Chopin’s Funeral March on piano.
The proceedings next moved to Graceland Cemetery, where addresses were heard by none speakers in as many languages, clarifying the global mission of the IWW and Hill. Unspecified songs by Hill were then performed by uncredited vocalists and then this was followed by instrumental music supplied by the Russian Mandolin Club and the Rockford IWW Band. (20)
Ralph Chaplin later described the memorial and funeral march, as well as the strength found in Hill’s music for the occasion:
The funeral exercises were opened up with the singing of Joe Hill’s wonderful song “Workers of the World Awaken—members of the IWW leading and the audience swelling out the chorus. This was followed by Jennie Wosczynska’s singing of “the Rebel Girl” written and composed by Joe Hill, after which came two beautiful tenor solos, one in Swedish by John Chellem, and one in Italian by Ivan Rodems…The funeral procession took complete possession of the streets…thousands marched. Songs were sung all along the way, chiefly Joe Hill’s, although some were of the foreign-speaking workers sang revolutionary songs in their native tongues. As soon as a song would die down in one place, the same song or another would be taken up by other voices along the line. Upon reaching the cemetery…a constant stream of people poured into and out of the semi-obscurity of the tiny room, while the great crowd gathered close around outside joined in one swelling, mighty chorus of song. Each one of Joe’s songs was sung over and over again…Three ringing cheers were then given for the Social Revolution and the IWW and then more songs.. The singing and cheering was something the old cemetery had never witnessed before… (21)
The funeral of Joe Hill, beyond an emotional memorial for a fallen comrade, was all the more a symbol of international solidarity. While the many were touched by the presence of Joe Hill the man, the vast majority was moved toward action—and continue to be moved in this manner-- by Joe Hill the legend. And this is why the labor bard’s ashes could be scattered about the country in 1915 yet he remains with us as a concrete, material reality.
1. Reed, John, “The IWW In Court”, The Education of John Reed. NY: International Publishers, 1955, pp 179-181. Originally entitled “The Social Revolution in Court”, The Liberator, September 1918
2. Nolan, Dean and Fred Thompson, Joe Hill: IWW Songwriter. Chicago General membership Branch, IWW, 1979, pp 4-5
3. Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 131-132
4. Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 185
5. Chaplin, Ralph, Wobbly, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938; source: Greenway, John, American Folksongs of Protest. NY: AS Barnes, 1953, page 190
6. Greenway,page 190
7. Greenway page 191
8. John Takeman, “Joe Hill’s Sister: An Interview”, Masses and Mainstream; Joe Hill to Katie Phar, 1915, Wallace Stegner Collection, Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace Library, Stanford University; source: Foner, Philip S., The Case of Joe Hill, NY: International Publishers, 1965, page 9
9. Hill interview by unnamed journalist, Salt Lake Tribune, June 27, 1914; source: Foner, pp115-116
10. Hill, Joe, Solidarity, December 23, 1911; source: Foner, Philip S., The Case of Joe Hill, NY: International Publishers, 1965, page 11
11. Salt Lake Tribune, June 21, 1914; source: Foner page 48
12. Salt Lake Tribune, June 28 1914; source: Foner page 48
13. Foner, page 13
14. Flynn, Elizabeth Gurley, Solidarity, May 22, 1915: source, Foner page 15
15. Debs, Eugene, The American Socialist, August 28, 1915; source: Foner, page 117
16. note to Phil Engle, a member of Hill’s defense delegation, published in the Industrial Worker, January 20, 1917; source: Foner, page 96
17. Foner, Philip S, editor, The Letters of Joe Hill, New York, 1965, page 42; source: Foner, page 96
18. Goldman, Emma, in a letter to Agnes Ingles, November 23, 1915; source: Foner: page 126
19. Desert Evening News, November 26, 1915; source: Foner, page98
20. Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, page 152-153
21. Chaplin, Ralph, International Socialist Review, December 1915; source: Kornbluh, Joyce L., editor, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. NY: Charles H. Kerr, 1998, pp 153-154
-John Pietaro is a cultural worker and labor organizer from New York. His website is www.flamesofdiscontent.org
-PUBLISHED IN ‘POLITICAL AFFAIRS’ MAGAZINE ONLINE, NOVEMBER 2009-