joe hill

The collected writing of a folk balladeer, Wobbly and activist inspires workers and scares the right in equal measure today, finds Adam Tomes


The Letters of Joe Hill, ed. Philip S. Foner, new material, Alexis Buss, foreword by Tom Morello (Haymarket Books, 2015), vii, 121pp.

Joe Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Haggelund on October 7th, 1879 in Gavle, Sweden. His small, childhood home in Sweden is now a museum, known as the Joe Hill House. The strength of the Joe Hill legend, which survives in folk tales, stories, recollections and his songs, has not lessened in one hundred years. The Joe Hill House ‘has union guards round the clock’ (p.vii) as it has been bombed twice and repeatedly has had its windows smashed in by fascists, still angry at the ideas and songs of a men, or legend, supposedly long dead.

Perhaps Joe Hill is not dead. The powerful song by Alfred Hayes ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ makes the point very clear, ‘Joe Hill ain’t dead’ (p.vii). This beautiful song has been covered by artists such as Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello and Paul Robeson. Joan Baez sang the song at the Veterans Day Rally organised by Occupy Wall Street in 2011, showing the power and longevity of his story. As Tom Morello argues in his superb one-page foreword, ‘wherever, whenever you raise you voice, your fist, or your guitar in the name of justice and freedom, Joe Hill is right there by your side’ (p.vii). And Tom Morello, activist and fellow Wobbly (the Industrial Workers of the World), should know, as Joe Hill is one of the inspirations for his band, Rage Against the Machine.

The inspiration

Joe Hill was a satirical lyricist, who used wit and fire to raise the big issues facing workers at the beginning of the twentieth century before the Second World War. The issues he tackled may have been shaped by the time and can be understood in their historical context. However, the power of the songs has not diminished. This is because the issues have not, in fact, fundamentally changed. Joe sang about ‘extreme poverty, police brutality, economic injustice, criminalised immigration, militarism, racism, threats to freedom of speech, war’ (p.vii). These issues need to be tackled by us, now with the spirit of Joe Hill in our souls.

Joe Hill’s song ‘Casey Jones – the Union Scab’, sung to the tune of the Ballad of Casey Jones is just one such song. The song was written in support of 35,000 striking railroad workers in 1911, with its lyrics printed on a card and sold to support the strike fund before becoming one of the staples of the Little Red Songbook. Joe Hill skewers the scabbing of the engineers, who were in it for themselves rather than acting in solidarity, with the wit which all his work shows:

Casey Jones went to Hell a’flying;

“Casey Jones”, the Devil said, “Oh fine:
Casey Jones, get busy shovelling sulphur;
That’s what you get for scabbing on the S.P line” (p.87).

Perhaps Joe Hill’s most famous song illustrates both his biting sarcasm and political message best. The song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ is written to a Salvation Army hymn, ‘The Sweet By and By’. The tune would have been widely recognised at the time and therefore easy for workers to remember and sing, which is crucial, as political singing is a communal activity relies on the participants knowing the tune. The song was written to lambast and ridicule the clergy at the time, who were heavily anti-labour, and delivers one of the great choruses:

‘You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die’ (p.85).

The misguided solution of the clergy of the time to poverty and unemployment is laid bare for all to see. At the same time, Joe Hill, delivered the phrase ‘pie in the sky’ into the American vernacular and it has now become a widely used and recognised phrase. Hillary Clinton, when in Wisconsin, described Bernie Sanders as a ‘pie in the sky’ politician, although I suspect that Hillary would be mortified, horrified and forced to apologise in a humbling climb down if she knew where the phase originated from and what it was used to ridicule.

Joe Hill himself understood the power of music in general and his own music in particular. He knew that song could deliver facts, ideas and the ‘social feeling of good fellowship’ (p.11), if they were delivered with humour. Joe Hill makes this absolutely clear in his letter from Salt Lake County Jail of November 29th, 1914, when he writes, ‘a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over’ (p.11). In this way, the songs of Joe Hill became a threat to the establishment, an inspiration for workers and make him the inventor of the modern American political protest song. Before Rage Against the Machine, Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, the Clash, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, PJ Harvey and Bob Dylan there was Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Before Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, there was Joe Hill and before Joe Hill, there was no one. So as we all sit down, put on our favourite records and listen to the power of politics in music, we are indebted to Joe Hill.

The legend of Joe Hill

Outside of his music, it is the amazing folk tale of Joe Hill that lives on. The story of his trial and his death sounds like a folk tale as it seems both unbelievable whilst offering a modern parable of the fear and immorality of the state. The fictional quality of the story is further heightened by the letters and actions of Joe Hill, recorded in this slim volume, as his turn of phrase was so sharp, biting and memorable.

On January 10th, 1914, John Morrison and his son Arling were tragically shot by two men as they were closing up their grocery store for the night. Arling managed to wound one of the two killers before he fell. Amazingly on the same night, Joe Hill was shot in the chest in what he claimed was an argument over a woman. The doctor who treated him reported Joe Hill to the police and he was tried for the shooting based on, as the prosecuting attorney said, circumstantial evidence. Indeed, there was no motive, no murder weapon, no positive identification of Joe Hill and there were stories that Morrison was fearful of retribution from two men he had sent to jail during his time as a policeman.

The prosecution proceeded despite the flimsy evidence. Indeed, Joe Hill’s lawyers wrote ‘The main thing that the state has against Joe Hill is that he is a IWW [Wobbly] and therefore should be guilty’ (p.2). They could have added, he was also a hobo and considered to be an enemy to the mining companies of Utah. The big issue for Joe Hill was that he refused to produce his alibi for the times of the murders. The reason for this appears to be twofold. Firstly, Joe Hill did not want the reputation of the woman in question to suffer. This story does in fact appear to be the truth, as William Adler in his recent biography produces a letter from Hilda Erickson, the woman in question, to confirm his alibi (p.57). The second reason appear to be that Joe Hill saw the case as a matter of principle: ‘My life is but a drop in the bucket, but there is principle involved back of this case’ (p.36). The principle he was defending is that it was up to the prosecutor to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty. He was willing to give his life to ensure that the system would be exposed and other working men and women would be granted the right to a fair trial.

Joe Hill was convicted and sentenced to death. There was mass international protest and Governor Spry of Utah received over 10,000 letters of protest including letters asking the evidence to be revisited from President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and the Swedish minister Ekengren. The letters pleased for justice and Joe Hill’s life. They were rejected and Joe Hill was unjustly shot on November 19th, 1915 for being a hobo, an activist, a wobbly and a folk balladeer. It is no wonder Joe Hill never died.

The Letters

The final letters of Joe Hill only serve to bring to light his humanity, humbleness and solidarity. His letter to the renowned union organiser, Big Bill Haywood of November 18th, 1915 includes the powerful lines that reflect his solidarity and his commitment to the fight against capitalism: ‘Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning – organize!’ (p.67). At the same time his humble nature is revealed, as in response to a request for an autobiography he writes, ‘I am a “citizen of the world” and I was born on a planet called the Earth’ (p.58). He felt no-one needed to know more about him, yet at the same time, he captured the true spirit of solidarity that we all feel towards all citizens of the earth who have been oppressed.

The brilliance of his writing is captured in his Last Will, which states:

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” (p.69).

His only final request was that he did not ‘want to be found dead in Utah’ (p.67). This request gave rise to the final saga of Joe Hill. Big Bill Haywood took him out of Utah to be cremated and 30,000 people turned up to his funeral in Chicago, more than turn out for the funerals of Monarchs, Presidents and Prime Ministers. His songs were sung by the crowds until night fall. Then Joe Hill’s ashes were placed into hundreds of envelopes and scattered into all the states, except Utah, and in countries all over the globe in perfect tune with his own sentiments.

The power of this incredible folk tale, his words and his music remain despite his murder by the state of Utah. His letters show him as a ‘class conscious worker, who concerned himself first and foremost, even while facing execution, with the problems confronting the American working class in its struggles against hunger and want … a man who was willing to sacrifice his life for what he regarded as a sacred principle – the right of a working man to a fair trial’ (p.4).

The words of ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ evoke his legacy best:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he

In Salt Lake, Joe, says I to him
Him standing by my bed
They framed you on a murder charge
Says Joe, But I ain’t dead
Says Joe, But I ain’t dead

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

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize

Joe Hill ain’t dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain’t never died
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize
Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill
Says he, You’ll find Joe Hill

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he

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