Songs That Made History: On 19th November 1915, Joel Haglund aka Joe Hill was executed by a Utah firing squad. Joe Hill was a songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, composing pieces to be used at meetings, picket lines and rallies. He wrote songs such as "The Preacher & the Slave", based on hymns, vaudeville tunes and old Irish songs, and created a model that was picked up later by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Now veteran folk musician and longtime labor activist John McCutcheon, who has starred in Si Kahn's one-man play "Joe Hill's Last Will", has released an album of Joe Hill's music in honor of the centenary of his death.
Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, and also known as Joseph Hillström (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915) was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies"). A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco. Hill, an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the radical union. His most famous songs include "The Preacher and the Slave" (in which he created the phrase "pie in the sky", "The Tramp", "There is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab", which express the harsh but combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize their efforts to improve working conditions.
In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men. The same evening, Hill arrived at a doctor's office with a gunshot wound, and briefly mentioned a fight over a woman. Yet Hill refused to explain further, even after he was accused of the grocery store murders on the basis of his injury. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers' organizations, Hill was executed in November 1915. After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry.
The identity of the woman and the rival who supposedly caused Hill's injury, though frequently speculated upon, remained mostly conjecture for nearly a century. William M. Adler's 2011 biography of Hill reveals new information about his alibi, which was never introduced at his trial. According to Adler, Hill and his friend and countryman, Otto Appelquist, were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. In a recently discovered letter, Erickson confirmed her relationship with the two men and the rivalry between them. The letter indicates that when she first discovered Hill was injured, he explained to her that Appelquist had shot him, apparently out of jealousy.
Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born 1879 in Gävle (then spelled Gefle), a city in the province of Gästrikland, Sweden. He was the third child in a family of nine, where three children died young. His father, Olof, worked as a conductor on the Gefle-Dala railway line. Olof died at the age of 41, and his death meant economic disaster for the family. Joe's mother Margareta Catharina did, however, succeed in keeping the family together until she died in 1902.
The Hägglund family home still stands in Gävle at the address Nedre Bergsgatan 28, in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. As of 2011 it houses a museum and the Joe Hill-gården, which hosts cultural events.
In his late teens-early 20s, Joel fell seriously ill with skin and glandular tuberculosis, and underwent extensive treatment in Stockholm. In 1902, when about 23, he and his brother Paul emigrated to the United States. Hill became a migrant laborer, moving from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually to the west coast. He was in San Francisco, California, at the time of the 1906 earthquake.
By this time using the name Joe or Joseph Hillstrom (possibly because of anti-union blacklisting), he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or Wobblies around 1910, when working on the docks in San Pedro, California. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the IWW newspaper Industrial Worker, identifying himself as a member of the IWW local chapter in Portland, Oregon.
He rose in the IWW organization and traveled widely, organizing workers under the IWW banner, writing political songs and satirical poems, and making speeches. He shortened his pseudonym to "Joe Hill" as the pen-name under which his songs, cartoons and other writings appeared. His songs frequently appropriated familiar melodies from popular songs and hymns of the time. He coined the phrase "pie in the sky", which appeared in his song "The Preacher and the Slave" (a parody of the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By"). Other notable songs written by Hill include "The Tramp", "There is Power in a Union", "The Rebel Girl", and "Casey Jones—the Union Scab".
As an itinerant worker, Hill moved around the west, hopping freight trains, going from job to job. By the end of 1913, he was working as a laborer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City.
On January 10, 1914, John G. Morrison and his son Arling were killed in their Salt Lake City grocery store by two armed intruders masked in red bandanas. The police first thought it was a crime of revenge, for nothing had been stolen and the elder Morrison had been a police officer, possibly creating many enemies. On the same evening, Joe Hill appeared on the doorstep of a local doctor, with a bullet wound through the left lung. Hill said that he had been shot in an argument over a woman, whom he refused to name. The doctor reported that Hill was armed with a pistol. Considering Morrison's past as a police officer, several men he had arrested were at first considered suspects; 12 people were arrested in the case before Hill was arrested and charged with the murder. A red bandana was found in Hill's room. The pistol purported to be in Hill's possession at the doctor's office was not found. Hill resolutely denied that he was involved in the robbery and killing of Morrison. He said that when he was shot, his hands were over his head, and the bullet hole in his coat — four inches below the exit wound in his back — seemed to support this claim. Hill did not testify at his trial, but his lawyers pointed out that four other people were treated for bullet wounds in Salt Lake City that same night, and that the lack of robbery and Hill's unfamiliarity with Morrison left him with no motive.
The prosecution, for its part, produced a dozen eyewitnesses who said that the killer resembled Hill, including 13-year-old Merlin Morrison, the victims' son, and a brother, who said "That's not him at all" upon first seeing Hill, but later identified him as the murderer. The jury took just a few hours to find him guilty of murder.
An appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful. Orrin N. Hilton, the lawyer representing Hill during the appeal, declared: "The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty. Hill tried to keep the IWW out of [the trial]... but the press fastened it upon him."
In a letter to the court, Hill continued to deny that the state had a right to inquire into the origins of his wound, leaving little doubt that the judges would affirm the conviction. Chief Justice Daniel Straup wrote that his unexplained wound was "a distinguishing mark," and that "the defendant may not avoid the natural and reasonable inferences of remaining silent." In an article for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, Hill wrote: "Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a 'goat' [scapegoat] and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be 'the goat'."
The case turned into a major media event. President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller (the blind and deaf author and fellow-IWW member), the Swedish ambassador and the Swedish public all became involved in a bid for clemency. It generated international union attention, and critics charged that the trial and conviction were unfair.
In a biography published in 2011, William M. Adler concludes that Hill was probably innocent of murder, but also suggests that Hill came to see himself as worth more to the labor movement as a dead martyr than he was alive, and that this understanding may have influenced his decisions not to testify at the trial and subsequently to spurn all chances of a pardon. Adler reports that evidence pointed to early police suspect Frank Z. Wilson, and cites Hilda Erickson's letter, which states that Hill had told her he had been shot by her former fiance.
Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. When Deputy Shettler, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing ("Ready, aim,") Hill shouted, "Fire — go on and fire!"
That same day, a dynamite bomb was discovered at the Tarrytown estate of John D. Archbold, President of the Standard Oil Company. Police theorized the bomb was planted by anarchists and IWW radicals as a protest against Hill's execution. The bomb was discovered by a gardener, who found four sticks of dynamite, weighing a pound each, half hidden in a rut in a driveway fifty feet from the front entrance of the residence. The dynamite sticks were bound together by a length of wire, fitted with percussion caps, and wrapped with a piece of paper matching the color of the driveway, a path used by Archbold in going to or from his home by automobile. The bomb was later defused by police.
Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, "Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... 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."
His last will, which was eventually set to music by Ethel Raim, founder of the group The Pennywhistlers, reads:
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? Oh, 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,
Hill's body was sent to Chicago where it was cremated. His ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and according to Wobbly folklore, sent around the world and released to the winds on May Day 1916. However it was not until the first anniversary of his death (November 19, 1916) that delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes. The rest of the 600 envelopes were sent to IWW locals, Wobblies and sympathizers around the world on January 3, 1917.
In 1988 it was discovered that an envelope had been seized by the United States Post Office Department 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. A story appeared in the United Auto Workers' magazine Solidarity and a small item followed it in The New Yorker Magazine. Members of the IWW in Chicago quickly laid claim to the contents of the envelope.
After some negotiations, the last of Hill's ashes (but not the envelope that contained them) was turned over to the IWW in 1988. The weekly In These Times ran notice of the ashes and invited readers to suggest what should be done with them. Suggestions varied from enshrining them at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC to Abbie Hoffman's suggestion that they be eaten by today's "Joe Hills" like Billy Bragg and Michelle Shocked. Bragg did indeed swallow a small bit of the ashes with some Union beer to wash it down, and for a time carried Shocked's share for the eventual completion of Hoffman's last prank. Bragg has since given Shocked's share to Otis Gibbs. The majority of the ashes were cast to the wind in the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and Nicaragua. The ashes sent to Sweden were only partly cast to the wind. The main part was interred in the wall of a union office in Landskrona, a minor city in the south of the country, with a plaque commemorating Hill. That room is now the reading room of the local city library.
One small packet of ashes was scattered at a 1989 ceremony which unveiled a monument to six unarmed IWW coal miners buried in Lafayette, Colorado, who had been machine-gunned by Colorado state police in 1927 in the Columbine Mine Massacre. Until 1989 the graves of five of these men were unmarked. Another famous Wobbly, Carlos Cortez, scattered Joe Hill's ashes on the graves at the commemoration.
On the night of November 18, 1990, the S.E. Michigan Central Committee of the IWW hosted a gatherings of "wobs" in a remote wooded area at which a dinner, followed by a bonfire, featured a reading of Hill's last will, "and then his ashes were released into the flames and carried up above the trees.... The next day ... one wob collected a bowl full of ashes from the smoldering fire pit." At that event several IWW members consumed a portion of Hill's ashes before the rest was consigned to the fire.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill, Philip S. Foner published a book, The Case of Joe Hill, about the trial and subsequent events, which concludes that the case was a miscarriage of justice.
I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night 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. "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. Watch I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night from: Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen
Hill was memorialized in a tribute poem written about him c. 1930 by Alfred Hayes titled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", sometimes referred to simply as "Joe Hill". Hayes's lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson, who wrote in 1986, "'Joe Hill' was written in Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 in New York State, for a campfire program celebrating him and his songs..." Hayes gave a copy of his poem to fellow camp staffer Robinson, who wrote the tune in 40 minutes.
Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger often performed this song and are associated with it, along with Irish folk group The Dubliners. Joan Baez's Woodstock performance of "Joe Hill" in 1969 (documented on the 1970 documentary and corresponding soundtrack album) is one of the best known recordings. She also recorded the song numerous times, including a live version on her 2005 album Bowery Songs. Scott Walker recorded a version for his album The Moviegoer. In May 2014, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened their concert in Tampa, Florida with the song.
Joe Hill Joe Hill come over from Sweden shores Looking for some work to do And the Statue of Liberty waved him by As Joe come a sailing through, Joe Hill As Joe come a sailing through. And Joe rolled on from job to job From the docks to the railroad line And no matter how hungry the hand that wrote In his letters he was always doing fine So he headed out for the California shore There things were just as bad So he joined the Industrial Workers of the World 'Cause, The union was the only friend he had Now the strikes were bloody and the strikes were black as hard as they were long In the dark of night Joe would stay awake and write In the morning he would raise them with a song And he wrote his words to the tunes of the day To be passed along the union vine And the strikes were led and the songs were spread And Joe Hill was always on the line Watch Joe Hill from: David Albion, Joan Baez, Raymond Crooke, Tim Rakel, Threelegsoman
Phil Ochs wrote and recorded a different, original song called "Joe Hill", using a traditional melody found in the song "John Hardy", which tells a much more detailed story of Joe Hill's life and death.
By & By Don't waste the days when I'm dead and I'm gone Wind up the clocks, ring around, carry on Don't gather flowers, dry your eyes, call your friends For all I sang was a start, not an end. Catch your breath, feel the life in your bones Enjoy what's to come, not the things that we've done Save all your prayers, take the pain and the hurt Add your chorus to my verse By and by, by and by Forget that glorious land above the sky Don't you cry, don't you cry By and by 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. Listen to By & By at: "A Singsong and a Scrap", "Get On With It", "Going, Going, Gone" Watch By & By from: Chumbawamba
Chumbawamba's song about Joe Hill, "By and By", appears on the 2005 album A Singsong and a Scrap. It incorporates the first stanza of Alfred Hayes' poem and is set to substantially the same melody as "The Preacher and the Slave."
Calling Joe Hill Where are the languages we spoke, sparked from the anvil, When we were music-minded folk? Calling Joe Hill. Calling, calling, calling Joe Hill Calling, calling, calling Joe Hill Rhymes in the broken beech wood ring, tuneless and chill Into the darkness echoing. Calling Joe Hill. Leaving the wildernesses fall, fearing no ill, Into the deepest note of all. Calling Joe Hill. Through the archangel-haunted night, Whose songs may still quicken the dreamer's second sight. Calling Joe Hill. Teller of elemental wrong, teach me the skill- Maker to maker, tongue to tongue. Calling Joe Hill. Songs for the hopelessness of friends hauled through the mill. Songs with a meaning, in the end. Calling Joe Hill. These are the heart's imaginings, when there's a will Even the broken beeches sing Calling Joe Hill.
"Calling Joe Hill" by Ray Hearne is frequently performed by Roy Bailey, a British socialist folk singer.
Joe Hill Joel Haglund came from Sweden Which was very far from Eden By the time he left most of his family died His sisters and his mother His father and his brothers So with one remaining sibling at his side He got a notion To sail across the ocean Where he heard the streets were paved with gold Not long after his arrival As he toiled for survival He realized the bill of goods that he'd been sold He got a whole lot wiser Became an organizer And he organized with artistry and skill He spoke up, raised his fist Got right on the blacklist That's why he changed his name to Joe Hill He heard that it was best If he headed to the west Where the Industrial Workers of the World Were finding the solutions For making revolution With red songbook and red flag unfurled Soon as he paid his dues He tried hard to light the fuse Speaking, singing, writing lyrics and cartoons He sent off the whole mess To the Wobbly press And they sang his songs as they fought the goons He joined a singing movement That fought for improvement By abolishing wage-slavery worldwide He sang the Wobbly line Beseeching workers to combine Learn from Mr Block -- the bosses lied Watch Joe Hill from: David Rovics
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Date: October 2015.
Photo Credits: (1) John McCutcheon, (2),(4) Joe Hill (John McCutcheon: Joe Hill's Last Will), (3) Pete Seeger, (5) "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", (6) Joan Baez, (7) Phil Ochs, (9) Ray Hearne, (10) Roy Bailey, (11) David Rovics (unknown/website); (8) Chumbawamba (by Tom Kamphans).