Songwriter, Joe Hill has become a legend of the American left and his remarkable story is a powerful reminder of the struggles of working people in the early twentieth century.
Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden in 1879, Joe Hill (also known as Joe Hillstrom) moved to the USA at the age of 23. He joined the millions of itinerant workers from Europe seeking employment throughout America and suffered the economic insecurity that defined the era. He worked across the states from New York to Ohio and was in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake. Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in around 1910 and soon became a key representative, touring widely delivering political speeches, writing songs and producing satirical cartoons.
The Preacher and the Slave
One of Hill’s best known songs “The Preacher and the Slave” was a parody of the popular Christian hymn, In the Sweet By-and-By. Hill also holds the claim to fame of coining the phrase, ‘pie in the sky’ (referring to an unrealistic desire or prediction) that features in the song as a criticism of preachers focusing on heavenly reward. The cutting satire of the song illustrates the anger towards the church in the face of growing poverty and starvation.
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when ask how ’bout something to eat
They will answer in 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
The Preacher and the Slave has been recorded multiple times and there are great versions by Cisco Houston, Harry McClintock and Utah Phillips amongst others. For a song over a one hundred years old, Joe Hill’s lyrics resonate far beyond his time.
The Rebel Girl – Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
The Rebel Girl was written in 1911 in honour of the labour activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964). Gurley Flynn was a radical socialist and feminist who at the age of only 17 became a full-time organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), of which Hill was a member. Her pro-union activism led her to jail on many occasions but tireless campaigning for women’s suffrage, birth control and worker’s rights secured her position in the civil rights movement. Gurley Flynn died in Moscow, during a visit, in 1964. The Soviet Union gave her a state funeral that was attended by over 25,000 mourners.
The Rebel Girl first appeared in the IWW Little Red Song Book and then as sheet music in 1915. Bluegrass singer, Hazel Dickens recorded the most well known version of the song in 1990 (for the 75th anniversary of Joe Hill’s death), adjusting some of the original lyrics for a contemporary audience. The Rebel Girl remains one of Hill’s most enduring songs.
The Trial and Conviction of Joe Hill
By the end of 1913 Hill was working as a labourer at the Silver King Mine in Utah. On the 10th January 1914 John Morrison, a Salt Lake City grocer (an ex-policeman) and his son, Arling were killed during an armed robbery. It was reported that Arling managed to fire several shots at the intruders before he was killed. That same day Hill appeared at a local doctor’s surgery with a gun shot wound. The doctor informed the police that Hill had been armed and when the police came to search his rooms a red bandana was found, similar to that worn by the intruders. The gun that the doctor had reported was never found.
Hill categorically denied involvement in the crime and told officers that his wound had been sustained during a fight over a woman, who he refused to name. Twelve suspects had been identified before Hill was interviewed and no motive for the crime could be established. The evidence against Hill was purely circumstantial, however the case for the prosecution was based on eye witness testimony and a dozen people claimed that the assailant resembled Hill.
Joe Hill was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The verdict was met with outrage from many within not only the IWW but the wider civil rights movement. Accusations of scapegoating were rife and prominent figures of the time petitioned President Woodrow Wilson for clemency, including Helen Keller;
Your Excellency: I believe that Joseph Hillström has not had a fair trial and the sentence passed upon him is unjust. I appeal to you as official father of all the people to use your great power and influence to save one of the nation’s helpless sons. The stay of execution will give time to investigate. New trial will give the man justice to which the laws of the land entitle him.
International socialist associations and media organisations mobilised their lobbying power towards the US government and the Swedish embassy, however Hill’s unwillingness to provide conclusive explanation for his gunshot injuries resulted in failed appeals. After 22 months in jail, Joe Hill was executed by firing squad at Utah State Prison on 19th November 1915. Thousands of IWW members attended his funeral and the procession closed a large section of central Chicago as they passed through. The vast majority of the analysis of the crime supports Hill’s innocence and that his membership of the IWW may have led to a prejudicial trial.
The Ballad of Joe Hill – A Musical Legacy
In his 2011 book The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, William Adler suggested that Hill’s reluctance to defend himself was in part due to a desire to become a martyr to the socialist cause. He claims that Hill came to the conclusion that he was more valuable to the IWW dead than alive. If it had not been for the murder trial and execution it is unlikely that Hill would have achieved the standing that he holds to the present day. Not only do his songs continue to be sung and recorded, two popular folk ballads have been written in his honour.
In 1925 (or 1930) British writer, Alfred Hayes penned “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, which was set to music by Seattle composer, Earl Robinson in 1936. The song (sometimes titled simply “Joe Hill”) has been recorded multiple times by artists including Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. In 1968 Phil Ochs wrote a new song which provides a narrative of Joe Hill’s life, from his arrival in the USA to his execution which has also been covered by Billy Bragg.
Want to learn more about Joe Hill? We’d recommend reading The Man Who Never Died : The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon by William M Adler.