Joe Hill ain't never died

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On 19 November 1915 Joe Hill was executed by the State of Utah on trumped up charges. Dave Gibson reminds us of the power of Hill's organising and songwriting skills at a time of upheaval in US politics.

When Alfred Hayes wrote the words “Joe Hill Ain’t Never Died” in a poem about Joe Hill’s murder, he could never have imagined that this would still be true a century later.

Paul Robeson popularised Hayes’s poem, now set to music. So did Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Other writers have celebrated Hill’s life and exposed the injustice of his judicial murder through historical accounts, novels, plays and film.

Joe Hill was born Joel Hagglund in Sweden in 1879 and emigrated to America in 1902. He worked his way across the country during the next decade, joining the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as the Wobblies, in 1910 in California.

The Wobblies were formed in 1905 to build “one big union” to wage the class war with the aim of destroying capitalism. They had an enormous impact in the US for the next 12 years. They led mass strikes of workers that the American Federation of Labour dismissed as unorganisable. They organised immigrant textile workers, agricultural workers, black and women workers. Many strikes were victorious, most famously the Lawrence textile strike of 1912.

In many Western towns the Wobblies led successful free speech campaigns to establish their ability to organise workers. Those campaigns involved defying city laws banning IWW street meetings.

IWW campaigns were met with state violence and imprisonment. Thousands of free speech campaigners were arrested, hundreds of strikers imprisoned, and dozens killed, including John Ramy, an 18 year old Syrian in the Lawrence strike who was bayoneted to death by a soldier.

Joe Hill was involved in many IWW campaigns, including the Fraser River strike in British Columbia and the free speech fight in Fresno, California, and fought alongside other Wobblies in the Mexican Revolution throughout the 1910s.

He described his motivation, writing, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace, so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things in life.”

Joe Hill is remembered when so many other Wobbly martyrs are forgotten because he wrote many of the most popular songs in the Wobblies’ Little Red Songbook. Tens of thousands of workers across the US sang his songs. Satirical parodies of hymns helped IWW street meetings compete with Salvation Army hymn singing. Hill’s most famous song, “The Preacher and the Slave”, ridicules a well-known Salvation Army hymn’s original function of trying to persuade workers to accept their lot now, in the hope of a heavenly paradise later. Its chorus spells it out:

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.

His first published song was “Casey Jones: The Union Scab” (1911) supporting a strike on the Southern Pacific Railway. It rewrote a popular song to condemn scabbing and was an immediate success. The Wobblies sold Hill’s song on coloured cards for strike funds. He wrote songs for both the Fraser River and the Lawrence strikes. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the Lawrence strike leaders, wrote that his songs “lilt and laugh and sparkle, kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit”. Hill wrote “The Rebel Girl” in praise of her.

One reporter commented on the Lawrence strikers that “they are always marching and singing” while another wrote, “I shall not forget the curious lift, the strange, sudden fire of the mingled nationalities when they broke into the universal language of song.” Singing welded the strikers together.

Joe Hill’s satirical songs tell the stories of workers duped into supporting the capitalist system. For Hill, songs dressed “cold, common-sense facts…in a cloak of humour to take the dryness out of them” and were more effective than pamphlets.

Strikes had hit Utah hard in 1913 so the establishment was looking for revenge. Joe Hill had been active there and they put him on trial for murder. The trial was a sham. There was no real evidence linking Joe to the murder. When he was found guilty and sentenced to death the IWW mounted a huge defence campaign.

They produced a special Joe Hill edition of the Little Red Songbook, organised protests around the country and inundated the state governor and President Woodrow Wilson with letters and telegrams. All efforts failed and Hill was executed.

His coffin was transported to Chicago where he was cremated the following week with a funeral procession of 30,000. His famous last message, “Don’t waste any time in mourning — organise”, was read to the crowd.

In his funeral oration Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood said Joe Hill’s “songs will be sung wherever the workers toil, urging them to organise”. That continues to be true for songs like “There is Power in a Union” and “Workers of the World Awaken”. The latter begins:

Workers of the world awaken/ Break your chains, demand your rights/ All the wealth you make is taken/ By exploiting parasites.

Truly a message for today.