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The Joe Hill Legacy



From http://www.wilaborers.org/generalinfo/laborhistory/events/thelegacyof.html, also an excellent source for   

The legacy of Joe Hill



He has been mention along with Bob Dylan as being one of the most influential protest song writers of the twentieth century. He has influenced such great performers as Woody Guthrie and John Lennon. He was immortalized in song by Joan Baez at Woodstock.

In the ten short years he roamed America, organizing workers and writing songs about and for working people, his music became synonymous with the struggle of labor over capital.

He was known as Joe Hill, and in the early decades of this past century, hundreds of thousands of workers across America not only knew his songs, but carried them daily, printed in the pages of The Little Red Song Book; a publication of the International Workers of the World.

Born Joel Emanuel Hagglund in Sweden, Hill was forced to work at 8 years old to support his family after his father died. At about the same time he took an interest in music, learning to play the piano, the violin and the guitar to relieve some of the adversity.
In 1905 he came to America like millions of other immigrants, crossing the Atlantic in the steerage compartment of huge liners, abandoned at Ellis Island with no money, few possessions, yet filled with hope of a better life.

And, like thousands of other immigrants, discriminated against, exploited by employers, forced to take the most demeaning and back-breaking work to survive, Hill's hope slowly faded to despair.

Hill began wondering the country. Working odd jobs as a field hand, a miner or a dockworker, he managed to eke-out a meager and homeless existence. He wrote poems and songs based on his journeys and quickly developed an affinity for the poor and downtrodden he met along the way.

It was during his travels that he was first introduced to the union movement and the IWW. The IWW, which advocated a new economic order featuring "one big union" of workers controlling capital, was much more appealing to Hill than the American Federation of Labor, which operated within the system, organizing workers around crafts and was at times openly hostile to immigrants.

Hill began organizing for the IWW and he used his music to strike a chord with a forgotten segment of American society.

"A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once," Hill is reported to have once written to a friend. "But a song is learned by the heart and repeated over and over."

As Hill's music spread, mysteriously, so did Hill "sightings." On more than one occasion he had been reported to have organized workers at the same time in cities at opposite ends of the country.

But, sometime in 1913, Joe Hill made his way to Salt Lake City, Utah, and it is here that the real mystery of Joe Hill is forever sustained.

On the night of January 10, 1914, two masked men murdered a Salt Lake City store owner and his son, in what police and others believed to be an act of revenge against the former law enforcement officer. The victim had feared the attack, providing police a suspect's name days before the murder.

Rather than investigate their lead, officers arrest Joe Hill after he is treated by a local physician for a suspicious gun-shot wound.

After a poorly conducted trial, that permitted leading questioning and accepted contradictory testimony of witnesses, repeatedly prevented defense rebuttal and was based entirely on weak circumstantial evidence, Joe Hill was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

To many, Hill's conviction was a sham - an exercise of power designed to threaten and silence the labor movement. But, while the trial record clearly shows Hill suffered from a poor defense and an unsympathetic judge, it is also absent any attempt by Hill to even name the witnesses who might have corroborated his story that he was shot in a woman's room by a jealous suitor.

Was Joe Hill a murderer, or was he a martyr to the cause? In the eighty-five years after his execution the question remains unanswered.

What we do know is, in the waning hours before his scheduled execution, thousands around the world pleaded for his life, including then President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. And, even the Governor of Utah, the only person who could have halted the execution, made a last ditch, unsuccessful effort to allow Hill to save his own life, by simply providing an alibi in his own defense. Hill remained silent.
Over the years, Joe Hill, in a sense, has become larger than life. Immortalized in story and song, his spirit forever captured in three simple words penned in his cell on death row hours before his life was ended by a state of Utah firing squad.

"Don't mourn - organize!? Hill wrote, and the phrase remains to this day a rallying call to workers around the world seeking economic justice and dignity at work.

2006 Wisconsin Laborers District Council


An interesting account filling in some of the details is found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Hill_.  The question as to Joe Hill’s wound seems to easily turn upon whether it was a bullet or shot-gun pellet.  What was the doctor’s testimony, and was it credible.  As for the red bandana, that could quite easily had been a police plant. 


Joe was executed by a firing squad on November 19, 1915.  His last word was “fire.”  The evening before, he had written a memorable letter to Big Bill Haywood, an I.W.W. leader.  He told bill “Don’t waste any time in mourning; organize.”  Eventually some of the contents were set to muic by Ethel Raim:

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? Ah, 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


His body was sent to Chicago were it was creamted.  His ashes were sent to every I.W.W. local.  An envelope containing some of those ashes held by the U.S. Postal Service, then turned over to the National Archives.  In 1988 after some negotiations, those ashes were turned over to the I.W.W.  The majority of his ashes were cast to the wind in the U.S., Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Nicaragua. 


Joe Hill surives in a poem by Alfred Hayes (1930), I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, which was set in 1936 to song by Earl Robinson, and has been recorded by Joan Baez, Woodie Guthrie, and others. 


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 working-men defend their rights,

it's there 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.



For a dose of Joe’s music and influence, Smithsonian Folkways released Don’t mourn – Organize!  It is well worth the cost—jk. 


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