Joe Hill – the Songs Keep His Legacy Alive

On 19 November 1915 a Swedish American labour activist, Joe Hill (born in Gävle, Sweden as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund) was executed by a fire squad. He had been put on trial for murder in Salt Lake City in 1914. He had travelled to Utah, as the IWW and the Western Federation of Miners had a base there. It was claimed that he was being framed because of his union activism. Joe Hill might have died on that date, but his name and songs are alive.

I was going to write a bit different kind of Joe Hill story for today, but I didn’t find what I was looking for, so today, 19 November 2020 I write a short story that is not dealing with his live but his songs.

In the end of this post I give some links to articles, where you can find more infor about this man, who after being born as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, changed his name first to Joseph Hillström and finally became known as Joe Hill. I will write a little bit about his songs, which are his legacy to the world. I base my story on an essay called ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: The Songs of Joe Hill Around the World’ by american music historian, labour activist and singer-songwriter Clark “Bucky” Halker. It’s published in a book called Wobblies of the World. A Global History of the IWW. This is how the essay starts:

Of the many people who passed through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and achieved some degree of public recognition, only songwriter Joe Hill (1879–1915) realized mythic status and international fame, albeit posthumously. Hill long ago ascended to the upper realm in the pantheon of protest song-writers, and his music continues to be sung and heard in areas far removed from the United States.

Please go and check my review of album Tie Vapauteen (‘a road to freedom’) by Paleface & Laulava Unioni and you notice that Joe Hill’s songs were also sung in Finnish. It is in fact quite natural as IWW had lots of Finnish members. You find more in my article about a Finnish language IWW paper called Industrialisti.

I copy here one paragraph from AFL-CIO’s website to give a bit of background information (read the whole text here):

Joe Hill. Source.

A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers’ rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—”Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.

Geoff Brown writes in Sabotage. A Study in Industrial Conflict (Spokesman Books, 1977):

The I.W.W. organized women workers, black workers, and unskilled and often migratory workers of all sorts. Joe Hill, the Wobbly songwriter and martyr, was in some respects an archetypal I.W.W. member – leading a life of a bum riding trains from one stint of seasonal work to another. (Brown, p. 42)

Halker writes that “he served as an organizer, cartoonist and journalist for the IWW, but it was his songs that garnered him a real audience”. Halker continues that Hill’s lyrics were clever with humour, irony, slang, sarcasm but also seriousness of purpose, and the melodies were borrowed from hymns and popular melodies, the ones people already knew.

But, obviously the power of the songs was considered dangerous, too:

Shortly after Salt Lake City police had arrested Joe Hill, they got in touch with the Chief of Police of San Pedro, California, who replied: “You have the right man… He is certainly an undesirable citizen. He is somewhat of a musician and writer of songs for the IWW Songbook.”
His meaning was clear. Though he lacked details of the murder with which Hill was charged, he had no doubt that Hill was “the right man.” For him, Hill symbolized working-class threats to the established order. The men he admired did not want their workers to organize, or to sing such songs as Joe Hill had written, ridiculing them and their police, challenging their right to wealth they had not produced. From these biases it came about that Joe Hill was tried and executed for a murder he did not commit. (Source.)

There was no evidence, no motive, writes Halker.

Spreading the songs

Cover of The Rebel Girl by Joe Hill. Public Domain. Source.

Joe Hill was travelling around. He travelled to Mexico and Hawai’i as well as to Canada and joined in workers’ activities, penning new songs and spreading them. But the more effective way to spread the songs and boost morale with them was the IWW papers and the Little Red Songbook.

Hill’s songs didn’t fall into oblivion after his death. “Today, Hill’s music has wider audience and artist base than ever, though this growth rarely has been steady.” (Halker, p. 290)

Joe Hill remained quite unknown in his homeland during his lifetime. Hill wrote in English and had limited contact with other Swedish-Americans. He became known in Sweden little by little only after his death, and later his music was found again during the counterculture era. Many Swedish musicians were recording Hill’s music between 1969 and 1980. Even a stamp of Joe Hill was issued. (Ibid., pp. 290–291) In 1968 American folk singer Phil Ochs performed his nowadays a very well known song, ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’ on Swedish television. You can watch it here.

On the other hand, Hill’s music was known from the very early days in countries like New Zealand and Australia as these countries “were key points on international shipping lanes and for the migrant labor economy on and off the seas” (ibid., pp. 291–292). Also the founder of IWW, William Trautman, was born in New Zealand to German parents.

One singer who helped a lot to make Joe Hill’s musical legacy known was Paul Robeson with one song in his repertoire. It is of course ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’ written by Earl Robinson in 1936 with lyrics from a poem by Alfred Hayes. Halker writes that Robeson’s concerts and recordings that were released in England after 1952, made this song a “standard” among the left, becoming possibly the best known Labour song in Britain. Joe Hill was elevated to mythical realm and his own songs became known, too. Later in the late 60s ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’ found new ground and audience in the era’s counterculture atmosphere, even though there might have been listeners, who had no idea who Joe Hill was. (Halker, p. 293)

You can listen to Robeson’s recording that paved the way to make Joe Hill known in many countries, here.

Halker notes that IWW songs found a large audience also among Finnish Americans. Finnish language IWW songbooks (that were printed by Työmies in Wisconsin) travelled all the way to Finland, too, in the First World War era. A well-known Finnish-born tenor Hannes Saari recorded ‘Workers of the World, Awaken!’ for Columbia Records in 1928. (Halker, p. 292)

The most recent recording of the same song, in Finnish language, can be found on the earlier mentioned album by Paleface & Laulava Unioni. You can find the English lyrics here. Music video by Joel Karppanen:

In 1975, the Turku Student Theatre group recorded an album of Joe Hill songs plus the Robinson/Hayes Joe Hill song. The last mentioned  can be heard here. I have to confess that I don’t have the album, even though I have heard about its existence.

Sometimes it was a question about one person’s contribute and the word started spreading. Regarding Germany, that person was a NATO soldier Victor Grossman (born Stephen Wechsler), who crossed the Danube by swimming to the GDR in 1952. He did a lot to promote Hill’s legacy and music there. He also founded a Paul Robeson Archive. There was even an opera entitled Joe Hill in East Berlin in 1970 featuring Joan Baez. Naturally the hundredth anniversary of the execution gave a huge boost in spreading Hill’s legacy to the knowledge of larger audiences.

What about myself? I have no idea when I have heard about Joe Hill first time.

Text © Katriina Etholén

Main source:

Halker, Bucky. ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: The Songs of Joe Hill Around the World’ in Wobblies of the World. A Global History of the IWW (ed. by Peter Cole, David Struthers and Kenyon Zimmer). Pluto Press, 2017.

Some links:

Joe Hill Centenary website
In ThoughtCo lifelong learning website
In AFL-CIO’s website

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