Joe Hill — remembering a 'troubadour of discontent' 100 years on from his execution

November 15, 2015
Before his execution, Joe Hill wrote to IWW leader Bill Haywood: 'Don't waste any time mourning, organise!'

Joe Hill was a senior organiser, popular songwriter and cartoonist for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), more commonly known as the Wobblies. The 100th anniversary of his death is being commemorated worldwide this month.

Hill's life is best remembered in labour movement songs that are still performed today by such renowned artists as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen. It could be argued that he is more famous now in death than he ever was in life.

Born Joel Emmanuel Haegglund in Gaevle, Sweden, in 1879, Hill emigrated to the United States in 1902 with his brother Paul. In 1910 in San Pedro, California, he joined the IWW and served for several years as the local branch secretary.

As an immigrant worker, Hill frequently faced unemployment and discrimination. In response, he changed his name to Joe Hillstrom but soon shortened it to just plain Joe Hill. He quickly rose to prominence in the group, not only as an organiser but as a popular songwriter and cartoonist.

The IWW were viewed as a radical union. His songs began appearing in the IWW's Little Red Song Book, focusing on the issues being experienced by the working classes. He wrote many of his most famous songs, including “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Casey Jones — A Union Scab” during this period.

According to the late US folk legend Pete Seeger, the IWW became the “singiest union America ever had. Much of their activism was inspired through their use of songs and the Little Red Songbook had the motto: 'To Fan the Flames of Discontent' on its cover.”

The Wobblies sang their songs at meetings, on picket lines, at protest marches, in jails and anywhere else where workers struggled to fight injustice.

In Hill's 1911 song “The Preacher and the Slave”, the phrase “pie in the sky” was coined. “Work and pray, live on hay; you'll get pie in the sky when you die,” the lyrics say. “Working men of all countries unite. Side by side, for freedom we will fight.”

Bob Dylan has also claimed his song “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is loosely based around Joe's life story.

Hill was also the subject of a poem by Alfred Hayes called “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, which was turned into a song in 1936 by Communist Party member Earl Robinson.

The song was famously sung by left-wing African American singer Paul Robeson, as well as being widely sung by and associated with Seeger and Irish folk band the Dubliners.

In the song, Hill appears to the singer at night, who tells the deceased worker militant:

The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn't die,”
Says Joe, “I didn't die.”

The song was famously performed by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969 and in more recent years by Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello.

It is impossible to separate Hill and his legacy from the legacy of the IWW. In 1905, Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and other dissatisfied unionists formed the IWW.

The Wobblies believed there was a need for a more radical and industrially militant group that could unite all workers into “One Big Union”. Their goal was not only to improve working conditions, but resolve the issue of who would run the world — the workers or the bosses.

There is no definitive answer as to why they became known as the Wobblies, but research suggests it was a pejorative term used by the “employing class” to refer to the working class's apparent liking for strong drink.

In 1911, Hill found himself in Tijuana, Mexico, where he was an integral part of a collection of hundreds of wandering hobos and revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Their aim was to emancipate the working classes and declare industrial freedom.

The insurrection lasted for six months before they were driven back across the border by Mexican troops.

In 1912, Hill was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of Wobblies and socialists in San Diego, which protested a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also actively supported a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, writing several songs before returning to San Pedro, where he lent musical support to a strike of Italian dockworkers.

During the San Pedro dockworkers' strike in 1913, Hill was arrested and held for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy because, as he said later, he was “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg” during the strike.

As an itinerant worker, Joe moved around the west, hopping freight trains and going from job to job. By the end of 1913, he was working as a labourer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City.

On January 10, 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor at 11.30pm and asked to be treated for a gunshot wound he said had been inflicted by an angry husband who had accused Hill of insulting his wife.

Earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants had been wounded in the chest. Hill's injury tied him to the incident.

The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of Hill's alibi convinced a local jury of Hill's guilt. This was despite neither witness being able to identify Hill conclusively. The gun used in the murders was never recovered.

The campaign to exonerate Hill began two months before the trial and continued up to and beyond his execution. His supporters included the socially prominent daughter of a former Mormon Church president, blind author and fellow IWW member Helen Keller, labour activists and even President Woodrow Wilson.

But not even calls from the US president were enough for the Utah Supreme Court, which refused to overturn the verdict, or the Utah Board of Pardons, which refused to commute Hill's death sentence.

The board declared its willingness to hear testimony in a closed session from the man Hill said shot him for insulting his wife. However, Hill refused to identify his alleged assailant, insisting it would harm the reputation of the woman in question.

Executed by firing squad on November 19 that year, Hill became more famous in death than he had been in life. To IWW leader Haywood, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organise!

“It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah.”

Apparently, he did indeed die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution later claimed that the command to fire had come from Hill himself.

After a brief service in Salt Lake City, Hill's body was sent to Chicago, where thousands of mourners heard Hill's song “Rebel Girl” sung for the first time. They listened to hours of speeches and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery, where his body was cremated.

Hill's ashes were mailed to IWW members in every state but Utah — and to supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe.

According to one of Hill's Wobbly-songwriter colleagues, Ralph Chaplin (who famously wrote “Solidarity Forever”), all the envelopes were opened on May 1, 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds. This was in accordance with Hill's last wishes, as he wrote in a poem on the eve of his death:

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 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

In 1988, it was discovered that one of the envelopes had been seized by the US Post Office Department in 1917 because of its “subversive potential”. The envelope, with a photo affixed and captioned “Joe Hill murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915,” as well as its contents, was deposited at the National Archives, in Washington.

Significant improvements in working conditions have been made in many countries since Hill's death, but the same basic protections that Hill struggled for 100 years ago are still under threat. Conflict between workers and capitalists is still ongoing.

This is the reason why Joe Hill's story remains significant and relevant for us today. The myth of a classless society is still that — a myth.

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