Joe Hill

On this date in 1879, union organizer and songwriter Joe Hill (né Joel Hagglund) was born in Gavle, Sweden. His parents were devout Lutherans who enjoyed music, filling their home with song. Only 9 when his father died, Hill had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. At 20 he was diagnosed with skin and joint tuberculosis. His mother died of complications from a back operation when Hill was 22 and he and a brother emigrated to America.

In 1914 a Utah grocer and his son were killed in their store and police picked up Hill, an unpopular newcomer to the Utah scene who had just been treated for a gunshot wound by a physician. Hill didn't help himself, refusing (gallantly, his defenders maintained) to provide details about his alibi involving being shot in a woman's room by a rival. Although the evidence was circumstantial and contradictory, he was found guilty. An international outcry ensued. Helen Keller came to his defense. President Woodrow Wilson intervened twice to try to prevent the execution but on Nov. 19, 1915, he was executed.

Just before his death he had written to the former president of the Western Federation of Miners, Bill Haywood, "Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organize!" Then he quipped, "It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. 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." Following his wishes, his ashes were distributed to every IWW local except for the one in Utah. More than 30,000 people attended his funeral. According to an article in the Deseret Evening News, "No creed or religion found a place at the service. There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices singing songs written by Hill."

The mournful but hopeful ballad "Joe Hill," written by Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson, commemmorates his work: "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 says he / I never died says he." ... "From San Diego up to Maine / In every mine and mill / Where workers strike and organize / It's there you'll find Joe Hill / It's there you'll find Joe Hill."

The Preacher And The Slave

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked about something to eat,
They will answer in voices so sweet:

Chorus:
You will eat, by and by,
In that glorious land in the sky.
Work and pray; live on hay.
You'll get pie in the sky when you die. (That's a lie!)

Oh, the Starvation Army they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they'll tell you when you're on the bum.

If you fight hard for children and wife,
Try to get something good in this life,
You're a sinner and bad man, they tell;
When you die you will sure go to Hell.

Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump, and they shout.
"Give your money to Jesus," they say,
"He will cure all diseases today."

Working folk of all countries, unite!
Side by side we for freedom will fight.
Then the world and its wealth we have gained,
To the grafters we'll sing this refrain:

You will eat, by and by,
When you've learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood — 'twill do you good.
And you'll eat in the sweet by and by. (That's no lie!)

—Lyrics by Joe Hill

Compiled by Jane Esbensen

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