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Joe Hill






There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Joe Hill (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915),  songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly called the “Wobblies”). Hill, an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the union. His most famous songs include “The Preacher and the Slave” (in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky”), 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.

In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. 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. 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’.” Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915 at Utah’s Sugar House Prison. 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!”

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.”

It generated international union attention, and critics charged that the trial and conviction were unfair. More recently, Utah Phillips considers Joe Hill to have been a political prisoner who was executed for his political agitation through song-writing.

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.

His last will requested a cremation and 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 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/Joe Hill

Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where it was cremated; in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and sent around the world to be released to the winds. Delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes November 19, 1916, one year to the day of Hill’s execution (and not on May Day 1916 as Wobbly lore claims). The rest of the 600 envelopes were sent to IWW locals, Wobblies and sympathizers around the world on January 3, 1917.

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.

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”. The 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 performed this song and are associated with it, along with Irish folk group The Dubliners and Joan Baez. (The notes above taken from a lengthy Wikipedia article-donate!)

I first heard the song, sung by Joan Baez in 1970.  Banter, since its formation over 25 years ago, has been performing this great song. This is another song fronted by Sam the Man and which I have purloined for this post. But then  again- it’s impossible to steal a great song which belongs to the wider world.

By Quentin Bega

I was born in the middle of the 20th Century and have, somewhat to my surprise, found myself in the next one with something more to say and do.

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