Ninety Years On, still with us in song

Charlie Pottins

NINETY years ago, Joe Hill - an immigrant, working-class organiser, and songwriter whose songs have gone round the world - was killed by firing squad in the State of Utah, after what most people regarded as a frame-up trial.

He was born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879, to a devout Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden. His father, Olaf, worked on the railways Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers' association hall in Gävle and played piano in a local café.
In 1887, Joel's father died from an injury at work, and the kids had to quit school to support themselves. Nine-year old Joel worked in a rope factory and later as a fireman on a steam-powered crane.

Stricken with skin and joint tuberculosis in 1900, he moved to Stockholm in search of a cure and worked odd jobs while receiving radiation treatment and enduring a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck. Two years later, his mother Margareta Katarina Hägglund, died after also undergoing a series of operations to cure a persistent back ailment.

With her death, the six surviving children sold the family home and set out on their own. Four of them settled elsewhere in Sweden, but the future Joe Hill and his younger brother, Paul, booked passage to the United States in 1902. He worked at odd jobs in New York before striking out for Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop, got fired and was blacklisted for trying to organize a union. He went to Cleveland, and was in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake of April 1906.

He was working on the docks in San Pedro in 1910 when he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and became secretary for the San Pedro local. He also began writing songs like "The Preacher and the Slave" and "Casey Jones—A Union Scab." These appeared in the IWW's "Little Red Song Book". Joe Hill had a song for every working man or woman.

In 1911, Joe was in Tijuana, Mexico, part of an army of several hundred wanderin hoboes and radicals who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, seize Baja California, emancipate the working class and declare industrial freedom. They held out six months before, divided and weakened, the last 100 rebels were driven back across the border by the Mexican army.
In 1912, he was active in a "Free Speech" coalition in San Diego resisting a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also turned up to support railway construction workers on strike in Brritish Columbia, writing more songs, before returning to San Pedro to assist a strike of Italian dockworkers.

The San Pedro dockers' strike brought Joe's first recorded trouble with the police. Arrested in June 1913 he was held for 30 days on a vagrancy charge. He said he had been "a little too active to suit the chief of the burg".

On Jan. 10, 1914, Joe showed up at a Salt Lake City doctor's at 11:30 p.m. asking to be treated for a gunshot wound. He said an angry husband had accused him of insulting his wife. But earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants was wounded in the chest by the younger victim before he died. Joe's injury therefore tied him to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of Joe's alibi convinced a local jury of his guilt, though neither witness was able to identify him conclusively and the gun used in the murders was never found.

The campaign to exonerate and save Joe Hill drew in prominent trade unionists and was supported by millions of people around the world. Even President Wilson appealed. But powerful copper mining interests were determined to stop union organising in the state of Utah. The Utah Supreme Court, refused to overturn the verdict and the Utah Board of Pardons refused to commute Joe Hill's death sentence.

In a last letter to former miners' union president and famous IWW leade Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill wrote:

"Goodbye Bill:
I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organize!

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."

It seems Joe Hill did die like true rebel. A member of the firing squad testified that Joe himself had shouted the order to "Fire!"

But Joe Hill's body didn't lie mouldering in the grave. It was sent to Chicago where it was cremated. Joe had written a poem asking that his ashes be scattered around the world, that flowers might blossom. They were purportedly sent to every IWW local. In 1988 it was discovered that one envelope had been seized by the US Postal Service in 1917 because of its "subversive potential." The envelope, with a photo affixed captioned: "Joe Hill murdered by the capitalist class, Nov. 19, 1915," as well as its contents, was deposited at the National Archives. After some negotiations, the last of Hill's ashes was turned over to the I. W. W. in 1988.

In 1925, Alfred Hayes wrote a poem about Joe Hill entitled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", but sometimes just called "Joe Hill". Hayes's lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson.
It has been sung by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and by the Irish singer Luke Kelly. Probably the best known version today was sung and recorded by Joan Baez in 1969, and featured in the film by Joe's fellow-Swede Bo Widerborg in 1971. Bob Dylan has said that Joe Hill's story helped inspire him to write his own songs.

But the lyrics as sung have sometimes varied, as the ballad was passed down over the years, sung at benefit concerts, and meetings, around campfires or in pubs.

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.
"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.
Says Joe "What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize"

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where workers fight,
to defend their rights,
That's where you find Joe Hill,
it's there you find Joe Hill!

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.

And now, below, a poem that seems as relevant today as in 1915. On a personal note, my great-grandfather as a boy was an unwilling conscript for the Czar, and my Dad was driven by poverty and unemployment as a lad to become a soldier for the British Raj. So, should I ever be a soldier....

Should I Ever Be a Soldier
By Joe Hill

We're spending billions every year
For guns and ammunition.
"Our Army" and "our Navy" dear,
To keep in good condition;
While millions live in misery
And millions died before us,
Don't sing "My Country 'tis of thee,"
But sing this little chorus.

Should I ever be a soldier,
'Neath the Red Flag I would fight;
Should the gun I ever shoulder,
It's to crush the tyrant's might.
Join the army of the toilers,
Men and women fall in line,
Wage slave of the world! Arouse!
Do your duty for the cause,
For Land and Liberty.

And many a maiden, pure and fair,
Her love and pride must offer
On Mammon's altar in despair,
To fill the master's coffer.
The gold that pays the mighty fleet,
From tender youth he squeezes,
While brawny men must walk the street
And face the wintry breezes.

Why do they mount their gatling gun
A thousand miles from ocean,
Where hostile fleet could never run
-- Ain't that a funny notion?
If you don't know the reason why,
Just strike for better wages,
And then, my friends -- if you don't die
-- You'll sing this song for ages.