IWW: songs the struggle taught us

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Part eight of our history of the Wobblies celebrates the great contribution of radical songwriter Joe Hill.

Song played a vital part in the struggles and campaigns of the IWW. On the picket line, at meetings, during the free speech campaigns, around campfires and in prison cells, the Wobblies sang their defiance.

In 1908 James Wilson reported from Spokane that the local Wobblies had been livening up their agitational meetings with “a few songs by some of the fellow workers”. He went on, “It is really surprising how soon a crowd will form in the street to hear a song in the interest of the working class.”

The following year a Wobbly song card was produced which sold for five cents and this grew into the Big Red Songbook. The inspiration behind this was the IWW organiser J H Walsh, one of the leaders of the 1909 Spokane Free Speech campaign. The jail was filled with Wobbly prisoners, abused and brutalised, but still defiantly singing “The Red Flag” and other revolutionary songs.

From 1909 the Big Red Songbook, which the subtitle proclaimed was intended “To Fan the Flames of Discontent”, was a permanent fixture of Wobbly campaigning and organising. One historian has described it as their Bible. It was reprinted every year with cartoons and poems alongside the songs.

As far as the IWW was concerned the Big Red Songbook was not just a book of songs but a vital propagandist and educational tool. The songs taught the realities of class society, satirised the bosses and their lackeys and preached the need for solidarity and the role of the One Big Union in achieving liberation.

There were many Wobbly songwriters but by far the most popular was Joe Hill. A Swedish immigrant originally named Joel Haaglund, he had arrived in the US in 1902, changing his name to Joseph Hillstrom, soon shortened to Joe Hill.
He travelled the country earning a living as a migratory worker and eventually joined the IWW in Portland, Oregon, in 1908.

He was active in the IWW local in San Pedro, California, in 1910 and was part of the Wobbly volunteer contingent that fought in the Mexican Revolution. His great contribution to the struggle, however, was his songs.

His first known song was “Casey Jones — the Union Scab” which he wrote in 1911 to support strikers on the South Pacific railway. It was a tremendous success. Probably his most famous song was “The Preacher and the Slave”.
One of the problems the IWW faced when organising migratory workers was the activity of religious groups such as the Salvation Army — or the “Starvation Army” as the Wobblies called it.

“The Preacher and the Slave” wittily and savagely skewered their pretensions: “When asked how ’bout something to eat/ They will answer with voices so sweet:/ 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 “John Golden and the Lawrence Strike” marvellously satirised the American Federation of Labor’s attempt to sabotage the great Lawrence strike of 1912.

The AFL official, John Golden, was sent to help the bosses fight off the IWW and suffered the humiliation of having thousands of workers marching through the streets singing, “A little talk with Golden/ Makes it right, all right/ He’ll settle any strike/ If there’s a coin in sight/ Just take him up to dine/ And everything is fine/ A little talk with Golden/ Makes it right, all right.”

As the song goes on, Golden thought the workers were just “crazy fools/ But to his great surprise the foreigners were wise/ In one big solid union they were organised.”

Hill was effectively blacklisted on the West Coast and moved to Utah where the IWW was under sustained attack from both the employers and the local authorities. On 10 January 1914 there was a robbery at a grocery store in Salt Lake City in which two men were killed. Hill was arrested.

In normal circumstances there would have been no chance of his being convicted, such was the lack of evidence. His IWW involvement in the climate of the time ensured that despite his innocence he was not only convicted but sentenced to death. There was a massive campaign to save him with meetings and protests held across the US and abroad. Even the AFL protested the injustice of his sentence.

He was executed by firing squad on 19 November 1915. His body was shipped to Chicago where leading Wobbly Bill Haywood, labour lawyer Orrin Hilton and great Irish socialist trade unionist Jim Larkin spoke at his funeral.

Larkin proclaimed that Hill had remained “true to the line of working class emancipation”, that he was “attuned to the spirit of the coming time” and that he had “voiced in rebellious phrases his belief in the working class”.

Over 30,000 people turned out for the funeral and among the banners were those inscribed with Hill’s own words: “Don’t Mourn, Organise.”