For Labor Day: Joe Hill, The Man Who Never Died

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died”, said he.
“I never died”, said he.

From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill.
Where working men defend their rights,
it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

When both my parents were gone to church meetings at night, my older siblings would get out their contraband Woodstock album and listen. I first heard the song “Joe Hill” from that album, sung by Joan Baez. (You can listen here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3p4vKd6tNO8 ) Her clear, sweet voice, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, stood in strong contrast to the amplified electronics of Hendrix, The Who, and Country Joe and The Fish, and I developed a jr. high school version of a celebrity crush on her. It was only years later that I became curious about the subject of her song and learned about his connection to my home state.

Joe Hill was born in Sweden, and his given name was Joel Emmanuel Hägglund. When he came to the United States, he went by the name of Joseph Hillstrom, or simply Joe Hill. He was a laborer, a longshoreman, and a miner, and eventually became a member of the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, as they were colloquially known. While he was working at the silver mines in Park City, he received a gunshot wound, for which he sought medical treatment in Salt Lake City, but which he never explained. Unfortunately for him, that same night a grocer and his son were shot to death in a robbery as they were closing their store. Hill was charged with their murders, convicted in a controversial trial, and put to death by firing squad on November 19, 1915. William Adler’s excellent and meticulous biography, The Man Who Never Died, published by Bloomsbury in 2011, sheds new light on the case. Adler found an old letter which tends to strongly confirm Hill’s innocence. In a storyline which will surely make every female reader’s heart go pitter-pat, we learn that he was shot in an argument over a woman, and that he chose to go to his death rather than reveal the truth and expose the woman he loved to shame or ridicule.

But regardless of his guilt or innocence, he became a martyr to the cause of organized labor. During a year that saw the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire and the Ludlow coal mine massacre, where mine owners asserted their property rights by burning men, women and children to death, and where a few years later, they machine-gunned striking miners, Hill’s death struck a chord. He didn’t want to be buried in Utah, but had his body shipped to IWW headquarters in Chicago for a funeral and cremation. Per his wishes, his ashes were scattered in every state but Utah. It is unfortunate that the case had a Mormon/anti-Mormon element. The murdered grocer was a former LDS bishop, and the labor unions in Utah were composed of mostly non-LDS people. However, there were a few notable exceptions. Virginia Snow Stephen, daughter of former church president Lorenzo Snow, was convinced of Hill’s innocence and visited him in jail on several occasions. And J. Golden Kimball was also known as a friend of organized labor, just in case you needed another reason to love him.

Hill’s influence continues to be felt in the broader culture. His most popular song, The preacher and the Slave, is a protest against the tendency to be lazy or complacent in the face of unfairness and Hill gently mocks the way that religious institutions can sometimes contribute to that injustice. “You’ll get pie in the sky in the sweet bye and bye, you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.” He made an unmistakeable mark on Woody Guthrie, and from there we can draw a straight line to Dylan, The Beatles, and Rage Against the Machine, among many others. In an hilarious case of tone-deafness, the newspaper headlines just two weeks ago told of the argument between RAtM’s Tom Morello, who has called Joe Hill his favorite musician, and Paul Ryan, who tried to (mis?)appropriate the work of cool people to his own ends.

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

Comments

  1. Joan Baez, FTW

  2. There’s also the fact that the Mormon governor, William Spry, refused to pardon Hill despite considerable pressure, including death threats and a personal plea from Woodrow Wilson.

  3. I would not expect the wing nut part of the Republican Party to give respect to the lyrics of Joe Hill and to the person who labors, but Eric Cantor’s homage to the managerial and entrpeneurial caste on a day set aside for the working man is beneath contempt. Joe Hill lives, but not in the heart of the plutocrats.

  4. Thank you for remembering this brave man while we watch our working class disappear

  5. I was also unaware of the Utah connection to Joe Hill until I read the biography of William Spry several years ago. The case seemed questionable even then. To more conservative interests, Joe Hill was seen as a malcontent bent on disruption, and I got a sense that the prosecution felt that he deserved punishment, whether he was responsible for the killings or not.

    An aside: Mark, the other “electrifying” acoustic performance at Woodstock was that of RIchie Havens singing “Freedom.” I was old enough to be aware that Woodstock was going on, but not in a position to try and get all the way across the country to attend. After seeing the film, probably best that I didn’t. Havens went on, unfortunately, and recorded commercials for The Man (the major networks, several major corporations, among others). But I will always remember him from Woodstock.

  6. Last Lemming says:

    And here’s a song BY Joe Hill. Sung by Utah in Utah. (I tried to find a good video of Dump the Bosses–sung to the tune of Israel, Israel, God is Calling or What a Friend We Have in Jesus, take your pick–but all I could find was Phillips delivering even longer rants than in the linked video, with minimal singing at the end.)

  7. Great post Mark. I had not heard this song, nor the story behind it.

  8. Note that it is Industrial Workers of the World, not International. A common mistake but self-evidently redundant. Had a good friend in law school who was one of a handful of members in Salt Lake. Along those same lines he started a chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Warno, thank you for your correction.

  10. Great tribute for Labor Day!

    Joe Hill was great. I have the “Little Red Songbook” the Wobblies used to publish, and so many of the great songs in there are by him.

    And the Wobblies are still alive and organizing today. :)

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