Joe Hill: Takes More Than Guns To Kill A Man

This post is a tribute to International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated May 1st all over the world.

Joe Hill the Wobbly

Joel Haaglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, aka Joe Hill, was born in Sweden on October 7, 1879.  Joe came to America (New York) after the death of his parents in 1902, full of youthful idealism on a life of easy success and ready opportunity, as many spoke of America at the time.  Joe worked in New York and then Chicago, where his idealism was quickly tarnished by the hard facts of the difficult life a worker actually faced.  He attempted union organization in Chicago and was fired and blacklisted.  After wandering the country awhile, he ended up in California, where he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910.  Members of the IWW were colloquially known as “Wobblies.”

Joe dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the IWW, believing strongly that the “human” element had to be reintroduced into labor if any progress in the relations between workers and the bosses was to be made.  He felt that workers should be viewed as individual human beings, and not as cogs in a machine.

But Joe is best known for his union songs.  Although a Swede, Joe knew the folk songs of American life very well, and adapted the well-known melodies to his new, union-oriented lyrics.  His songs were immensely popular and instrumental to recruitment and morale in the IWW.

Among his most famous songs, “The Preacher and the Slave,” sung to the tune of the popular hymn “In the Sweet By-and-By,” satirized the complicity of religion in forcing the working man to accept his deplorable working conditions. In the song, preachers tell the worker, “You’ll have pie in the sky when you die,” meaning that hope for a better afterlife should allow you to ignore your misery in this one.  The phrase “pie in the sky” entered American English and is still used today, to mean naïve hope in a future reward that thwarts efforts to improve one’s current circumstances.

Long-haired preachers come out every night

Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right

But when asked how ‘bout something to eat

They will answer in voices so sweet:

“You will eat, by and by,

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and pray, live on hay

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”

– Joe Hill, “Pie in the Sky”

Joe Hill, one of the pioneering protest singer...

Joe Hill’s Death and Legend

The IWW, founded in 1905, was more radical than other labor organizations of  the day. Their doctrine was more Socialist, and they aimed to abolish the wage system altogether.  But in addition, they allowed non-whites, women, and the foreign-born to be members, unlike other unions.  They also fought hard for free speech for political dissidents.  By 1912, the IWW had grown to be an influential organization with support from harvest workers, lumberjacks, longshoremen, mariners, and miners.  Big corporations began to take notice, and pressured the government to curb the IWW.  Starting in 1917, the federal government argued that “agitation” during wartime was treason, and began imprisoning Wobblies.

It was in this climate that Joe Hill, whose songs had such an impact on so many, became a target for the powerful corporations.  In 1914, Joe was in Utah working in the mines.  A double murder was committed at a grocery store in Salt Lake City the night of Jan 10, 1914.  Joe showed up at a hospital that night with a gunshot wound.  On this circumstantial evidence, Joe was accused of the crime.

During his trial, Joe Hill did not testify in his defense, which was instrumental in his conviction, although many have pointed out that the facts alone could not have provided enough evidence for guilt.  The grocery store was not robbed during the murders of the grocer and his son, which points to personal grudge as the only obvious motive for their killing, but Joe didn’t know the men, so he could not have had any personal reason to kill them.  Further, Salt Lake City was a rough town in 1914; several other people had shown up at hospitals with gunshot wounds on the night in question.

Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915.  And so a legend was born.  Wobblies and other labor activists saw Joe Hill as a martyr – a young songwriter who was framed by “copper bosses” who sought his death and his silence.  Joe’s story achieved iconic status in American union folklore.  Several elements of his story are classic aspects of any American folk hero – he was fighting an unjust system, he was young, and he was killed through treachery.

I think a few other pieces of his story add poignancy, though: he was a musician, and he was a foreigner.  Musicians, particularly folk singers, are people who seek to reveal the injustices of life and protest in the most acceptable, even enjoyable, means possible.  They create something good that society can appreciate, all the while they are protesting.  Joe Hill’s story has that sort of Victor Jara quality to it, in that someone who uses music as a medium of protest should die so violently.  Secondly, as a young Swede who came to America for a better life, he fits into the “American Dream” legend. Foreigners are supposed to come to America and have all their dreams come true, so the legend goes.  For a young man to come to the USA, work hard, make great contributions, and then be murdered in return, is a tragedy.

Joe Hill became a symbol of protest and resistance that continued all the way through the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. Earl Robinson and folk singer Phil Ochs both wrote songs about him. Robinson’s song has been recorded by artists like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

Joe Hill: The Man Who Never Died

Joe Hill is often said to still be alive, in a metaphorical sense, because his legend is so strong.  As long as people are still protesting, still participating in unions, so they say, then Joe Hill will continue to live on in his songs.

I have found some references that seem to explain why Joe didn’t testify at his trial or explain his gunshot wound.  He had been in a fight with another man over a woman.  The internet sources I’ve seen claim all three people in this drama lived in a boarding house together, but this hardly explains why Joe would remain silent, with his life at stake.  A  more likely explanation, as given in B.A. Bodkins’ “A Treasury of Western Folklore,” is that Joe was having an affair with a married woman, and her husband was a good friend of his. In this version of events, Joe didn’t speak because of the shame of the affair, and wanting to protect the woman’s honor by not publicly proclaiming it, as adultery by a woman was a much more serious moral crime in 1915 than it is today. That twist to the story explains all the facts and makes perfect sense.  Also, the tragedy of that turn of events is itself legend-building.

Lefty Frizzell, a famous country music singer of the 1950’s and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, had one of his biggest hits, “Long Black Veil” become a country music standard.  Few people know, however, that the song is based on the legend of Joe Hill.

The judge said son, what is your alibi

If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die

I spoke not a word, though it meant my life

For I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

– Long Black Veil, as sung by Lefty Frizzell


2 responses to “Joe Hill: Takes More Than Guns To Kill A Man

  1. Love Joan’s version of “Joe Hill!”


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