Remembering the Life and Music of Labor Agitator Joe Hill, Who Was Executed 100 Years Ago Today

David Cochran

He was killed by firing squad in the state of Utah on November 19, 1915.

Joe Hill saw his music as a weapon in the class war, com­pos­ing songs to be sung on soap­box­es, pick­et lines or in jail. And 100 years ago today, the forces of cap­i­tal and the state of Utah exe­cut­ed him.

Chica­go musi­cian and schol­ar Bucky Halk­er is hon­or­ing the cen­ten­ni­al with a CD of new inter­pre­ta­tions of Hill’s music, Any­where But Utah — The Songs of Joe Hill,” tak­ing his title from Hill’s dying wish that his remains be trans­port­ed out of state because he didn’t want to be found dead in Utah.” The album includes such famil­iar Hill clas­sics as The Preach­er and the Slave,” There is Pow­er in a Union” and Rebel Girl” as well as some sur­pris­ing obscu­ri­ties, like the wist­ful­ly roman­tic Come and Take a Joy-Ride in My Aeroplane.”

Born Joel Hag­glu­nd in Swe­den, Hill immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1902, chang­ing his name to Joseph Hill­strom, which would even­tu­al­ly be short­ened to Joe Hill. Work­ing his way across the coun­try, Hill became politi­cized, even­tu­al­ly join­ing the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World. Pop­u­lar­ly known as the Wob­blies, the IWW sought to orga­nize those work­ers more main­stream unions avoid­ed — the unskilled, migrants, immi­grants, minori­ties — in an effort to com­bine the entire work­ing class into One Big Union.

As a Wob­bly, Hill was active in free speech fights in Fres­no and San Diego, a strike of rail­road con­struc­tion work­ers in British Colum­bia and even fought in the Mex­i­can Revolution.

In 1914, Hill was arrest­ed in Salt Lake City and charged with killing a store­keep­er, alleged­ly in a botched rob­bery. Despite the flim­sy nature of the evi­dence, Hill was con­vict­ed and sen­tenced to death, with the pros­e­cu­tor urg­ing con­vic­tion as much on the basis of Hill’s IWW mem­ber­ship as any puta­tive evi­dence of his involve­ment in the crime. An inter­na­tion­al amnesty move­ment pressed for a new tri­al, but the Utah gov­er­nor refused and Hill was exe­cut­ed by fir­ing squad on Novem­ber 19, 1915. In a final mes­sage to IWW Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Bill Hay­wood, Hill urged, Don’t waste any time in mourn­ing — organize.”

Since his death, Hill has been immor­tal­ized in a wide vari­ety of cul­tur­al expres­sion, includ­ing poet­ry by Ken­neth Patchen, fic­tion by Wal­lace Steg­n­er, and a song by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robin­son, pop­u­lar­ized by Paul Robe­son, promis­ing where work­ing­men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side.”

I talked to Halk­er about Hill’s music, pol­i­tics and lega­cy. Halk­er is the author of the sem­i­nal work on Gild­ed Age labor music, For Democ­ra­cy, Work­ers, and God: Labor Song-Poems and Labor Protest, 1865 – 95, and has pre­vi­ous­ly released a trib­ute album to Woody Guthrie.

For one who was not a native Eng­lish speak­er, Joe Hill had a keen under­stand­ing of Amer­i­can slang, humor, and var­i­ous folk and pop­u­lar song forms. How did he become such a mas­ter of the Amer­i­can ver­nac­u­lar? How does he com­pare with oth­er folksingers close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with insur­gent move­ments, such as Woody Guthrie?

Hill is part of a long tra­di­tion of organ­ic” intel­lec­tu­als in the USA. He was also just plain smart, which you can tell from read­ing his lyrics and oth­er writ­ing. He was self-edu­cat­ed, with an appetite for ideas. And remem­ber that the labor move­ment was filled with men and women of this sort, dat­ing to the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. Unions, of course, often had their own libraries, so work­ers could check out lit­er­a­ture relat­ed to every­thing from poet­ry to eco­nom­ics. Also, cheap pam­phlets on the issues of the day, includ­ing Marx­ism, were extreme­ly com­mon in the years after the Civ­il War and well into the 20th cen­tu­ry. If you look at the peo­ple who wrote labor music and poet­ry, they typ­i­cal­ly share this kind of background.

Hill and Guthrie also share a tremen­dous skill in the realm of ver­nac­u­lar speech. He mas­tered all this hobo and Wob­bly slang of the era and the lat­est music-hall, vaude­ville lyrics of the day. Also, Hill’s work is filled with humor, irony and sar­casm — hard­ly easy skills to gain in your sec­ond lan­guage. No doubt he picked all this up from hobos, labor activists, and Wob­blies, but I also believe his ear for music helped him in this effort.

Hill had some musi­cal train­ing and a pas­sion for music that is obvi­ous in his lyri­cal approach. You can tell from his lyrics that he paid close atten­tion to the musi­cal hall and Tin Pan Alley writ­ers of the day. Most of them were also immi­grants or chil­dren of immi­grants and were very skilled at slang, lyri­cal twists and clever use of idioms. Indeed, Hill’s lyrics and choice of tunes have much more in com­mon with music hall com­posers than the folk or coun­ty mod­els that Guthrie and oth­ers made use of in the years of the great labor upris­ing of the 1930s and which became the tem­plate for labor song­sters thereafter.

Hill and oth­er Wob­bly bards and writ­ers should get some cred­it for their use of sar­casm and irony in the devel­op­ment of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. They had sharp wits and tongues that worked deft­ly and quick­ly, which only pissed off the lunkhead boss­es, the law and the rul­ing elite even more. The author­i­ties and their lack­eys dis­like rad­i­cals even more when they’re much smarter than they are.

What was the role of music in the cre­ation of the Wob­bly move­ment culture?

Music was a cen­ter­piece of the Wob­bly move­ment cul­ture.” How­ev­er, I wouldn’t say this came into exis­tence with the IWW. Ear­li­er, the abo­li­tion­ists and the Gild­ed Age labor move­ment made singing, song­writ­ing, poet­ry and oth­er forms of writ­ing a key part of their efforts. Coal min­ers and Jew­ish tex­tile work­ers had already devel­oped a strong work­ing-class poet­ic and musi­cal tra­di­tion, as did the Knights of Labor. So Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie were stand­ing on big shoulders.

Hav­ing said that, the IWW took the music and poet­ry to new heights and clev­er­ly used singing and chant­i­ng as a way to gar­ner atten­tion from work­ers, the media, and the author­i­ties. Fifty work­ers singing makes a lot more noise at a ral­ly or in a jail cell than one speak­er on a soap­box or one per­son rant­i­ng in the joint.

What kinds of con­sid­er­a­tions did you take into account in updat­ing Hills music?

I quick­ly decid­ed I want­ed to record a cou­ple of the sen­ti­men­tal love songs because that part of Hill’s per­son­al­i­ty had been neglect­ed. They read like old vaude­ville and Tin Pan Alley lyrics, so I worked on melodies and chord changes that were com­mon to those types of pieces. I also decid­ed that on songs like Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” and It’s A Long Way Down to the Sou­pline” that I want­ed to use a brass band that had the fla­vor of the music hall that Hill was lean­ing on. I hoped to make it a bit like a drunk­en Sal­va­tion Army band in the process, which fit the brass band sound anyway.

I knew he’d been to Hawaii and the Pacif­ic Islands too, so I decid­ed to do a cou­ple songs with the ukulele at the cen­ter, which was appro­pri­ate giv­en some things I’d read on Hill and the music he heard on that trip (plus the ukulele had become pop­u­lar at the time).

I want­ed to make a record that Hill would like. That was my pri­or­i­ty from the begin­ning. I don’t think he’d like a straight folk revival, strum­ming acoustic gui­tar approach, as that has noth­ing to do with most of his mate­r­i­al. He played the piano and the fid­dle, after all. The folk revival­ists did a great ser­vice by keep­ing Hill’s work in cir­cu­la­tion, but try­ing to keep him in that small musi­cal box is way off the mark. So, I bor­rowed from vaude­ville and the music hall, piano blues and ear­ly jazz, alt-coun­try, swing, punk and gospel.

I think Joe would be very hap­py with this record­ing — more so than what’s preceded.

What sorts of musi­cal choic­es did Hill make? What kinds of influ­ences did he draw on?

Hill came from a music-lov­ing fam­i­ly and he also had some musi­cal train­ing as a child before his dad died and the fam­i­ly fell on hard times. He heard a lot of reli­gious music, as his fam­i­ly were strong Luther­ans and some­times attend­ed Sal­va­tion Army gath­er­ings. Since hymns were well known, even across sec­tar­i­an reli­gious (and polit­i­cal) lines, hymn tunes were often used by labor song­writ­ers going back to the mid-19th cen­tu­ry. Hill’s use of In the Sweet By and By” as the tune for The Preach­er and the Slave” was very much in a labor tra­di­tion, as was Near­er My God to Thee” for his Near­er My Job to Thee.”

Hill also wrote his own music for some of his songs — for his clas­sic Rebel Girl,” for exam­ple. And though he leaned heav­i­ly for the music of the Inter­na­tionale” for his Work­ers of the World Awak­en,” he did include clear pieces of his own work in writ­ing that one, too.

But most often he drew on the vaude­ville, music hall, ear­ly Tin Pan Alley songs that were pop­u­lar with work­ers at the time. For Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” he took the tune from a music hall hit by the same name. For Scis­sor Bill” he took the tune from Steam­boat Bill,” which was a huge hit at the time and a best-sell­ing ear­ly recording.

With all his tune choic­es, he was like oth­er work­ing-class writ­ers and had the same goal — use tunes that work­ers knew already for labor songs and then they’d be easy for work­ers to sing.

Can you give the back­ground of some of the oth­er songs?

Der Chief of Fres­no” grew out of the IWW’s free speech cam­paign. Fres­no was a place where the police were notably con­fronta­tion­al. Hill added his voice to the mix with a piece that appears to have been a chant of sorts. That’s why I added the mul­ti­ple voic­es on the words der chief” when­ev­er it comes around. I like the use of the Ger­man Der” in the title, as if the chief might make a good mem­ber of the oppres­sive Pruss­ian army.

Stung Right” rep­re­sents the strong anti-mil­i­tary bent of the IWW, even before the out­break of World War I. Many immi­grant work­ers had already come from regions of the world where they were draft­ed and made to fight the bat­tles for the rul­ing class and were deter­mined to stay out of future such wars. What’s more, many work­ing-class groups saw war as a sense­less rul­ing class fight that only pit­ted work­ers against each oth­er. Nation­al­ism was seen as suspect.

Lit­tle won­der, then, that after the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in 1898, and the need­less slaugh­ter it entailed, anti-war and anti-mil­i­tary sen­ti­ments found wel­come ears. Hill was aware that work­ers also signed up with the mil­i­tary when their eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tions were dif­fi­cult. At least they gave you a bit of cash and some food in the army. In this piece, he’s warn­ing work­ers not to fall for it

Rebel Girl” is anoth­er of his best efforts. Hill wrote it him­self for Eliz­a­beth Gur­ley Fly­nn. Hill fol­lowed her career close­ly and admired her work on behalf of labor. They fre­quent­ly cor­re­spond­ed while Hill was in prison. He even wrote a cute lit­tle song for her son called Bron­co Buster Fly­nn.” Fly­nn had vis­it­ed Hill while he was await­ing exe­cu­tion and sent him a pho­to of her son Buster.

One song that struck me was Come Take a Joy Ride in My Aero­plane.” As you say in your lin­er notes, that seems to rep­re­sent a roman­tic and care­free side” that we don’t typ­i­cal­ly asso­ciate with Hill.

There were three of these roman­tic, sen­ti­men­tal songs that Hill wrote, all of which were dis­cov­ered after his arrest and none of which had music or tunes for them. Of course, there may be more, but we haven’t yet found those. They weren’t typ­i­cal of Hill’s writ­ing, which is gen­er­al­ly focused on labor and polit­i­cal issues. But you can find some of this same sen­ti­ment in his let­ters, so it clear­ly was a key com­po­nent of who Joe Hill was.

Frankly, I think his­to­ri­ans and musi­cians have missed the boat in not address­ing this roman­tic impulse. I sup­pose it seems counter to our image of the left-wing rad­i­cal. But hell — I’d rather hang out with a per­son with strong roman­tic ten­den­cies and a left-wing lean­ing per­son­al­i­ty, than some dour old sour­puss like Marx or Lenin, wouldn’t you? I also think with­in the IWW there was a strong sense of romance about the world. This can be found clear­ly in Wob­bly writ­ers like Hay­wire Mac or Ralph Chap­lin. Some of this could be chan­neled toward a utopi­an impulse, as in the clas­sic IWW song Big Rock Can­dy Mountain.”

Hill just gave it a more per­son­al twist. Why shouldn’t he want to fall in love and be car­ried away for a while in the rever­ie of romance? Don’t we all? Here’s a guy who went to work at age nine, con­tract­ed tuber­cu­lo­sis, went on the tramp to sur­vive and worked an end­less stream of low-pay­ing jobs. Why not dream of tak­ing flight above this drea­ry earth with your gal and soar above the trou­bles below? Sounds like fun to me.

What is it about Hill that makes his lega­cy res­onate so widely?

Obvi­ous­ly, the injus­tice of his arrest, tri­al, and exe­cu­tion con­tin­ues to res­onate, espe­cial­ly when a day doesn’t pass with­out some pris­on­er being released from prison after new evi­dence or DNA tests exon­er­at­ed him or her.

Beyond that obvi­ous point, I think there are many peo­ple who hear his songs and imme­di­ate­ly sense that the issues raised by Hill and oth­er Wob­bly bards remain impor­tant to our nation­al dis­cus­sion, includ­ing decent wages and work­ing con­di­tions, immi­grant rights, dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, the oppres­sion of women, the right to form a union and the right to free speech.

I have to admit, how­ev­er, that I’m often bewil­dered by con­ser­v­a­tive labor lead­ers in the USA who pull out Hill’s lega­cy when it’s con­ve­nient and make pos­i­tive com­ments about him. If he were around today, they’d throw him out of their con­ven­tions in a minute.

I also think there’s con­sid­er­able appeal to Hill’s per­son­al demeanor through­out the tri­al. He died a hero­ic, noble death — some­thing few peo­ple can claim for their lives. He gave his life for the cause, and his tri­al and exe­cu­tion played out in the inter­na­tion­al media of the day. He’s a roman­tic char­ac­ter of the type that is more com­mon in ear­ly movies than in reality.

David Cochran is a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry in the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment at John A. Logan College.
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