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Joe Hill: The Legendary Troubadour of the Wobblies
The role of music in the labor movement, and how a rabble-rousing immigrant became a quintessential figure in labor history
If you’ve listened to the music of Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger or Paul Robeson, you have probably heard of Joe Hill.
Joe Hill is a folk hero troubadour of the early 20th-century American labor movement, a Swedish-born itinerant worker/union organizer/agitator who died by firing squad in Utah for a murder he likely didn’t commit. A card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World, (the IWW, also called the Wobblies), Hill wrote rousing, often satirical anthems that promoted the message of “One Big Union.”
A number of songs by, and about, Hill have become standards in the labor movement songbook. They’ve been covered and celebrated by a diversity of artists, and his legend has inspired generations of writers and historians. We’ll explore some of these resources for a glimpse at the important role of music in the labor movement, and why Joe Hill became the quintessential figure in this history.
“One Big Union” gets organized
The inaugural convention of the Industrial Workers of the World brought 200 leftist labor activists together in Chicago on June 1905, with the intention of promoting “One Big Union.”
This was a time when many trade and industrial workers suffered extreme exploitation and abuse at the hands of their employers. When workers united for better working conditions, fair wages and to be treated like human beings, violence ensued. In cases like the Pullman Strike, the Lattimer massacre and the Colorado Labor War, state and federal troops were deployed against unarmed strikers and protesters, who were brutally beaten, arrested and/or murdered.
Frustrated by the lack of power and progress on the part of smaller, local unions, as well the likes of larger, more conservative unions, including the American Federation of Laborers (AFL), the IWW sought the collective strength of all workers – including women, blacks and illegal immigrants, as well as socialists, anarchists and Marxists – to overthrow the employer class.
Their motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The Little Red Songbook
Songs have always been a part of the earliest labor movements, and according to Franklin Rosemont, the author of Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, the IWW used them to create “the One Big Union's single most effective piece of propaganda, and by far its most popular publication,”: The Little Red Songbook, introduced in 1908. As Rosemont points out, many unions had songbooks, but none were as effective as this one in spreading a message to a vast and disparate group of workers.
“What made the IWW Song Book so different,” Rosemont explains, “was its passionate anti-capitalism, its free-wheeling humor, and the vision it projected of a new society without exploitation, bosses, cops or jails.”
The songs in the book were all originals, written by members of the organization with the intent to promote solidarity, keep laborers fired up and lift the downtrodden spirits of the working class. Although his contributions didn’t appear until the 1911 edition, the songwriting of Joe Hill became synonymous with The Little Red Songbook.
According to Rosemont, people related to the “simplicity of Hill's lyrics, the innocence of heart that they communicate along with their radical defiance, their solidarity with the oppressed, their love of freedom, and their bright vision of a new and happier society."
Who was Joe Hill?
Details of Hill’s life are sparse and often hard to separate from rumors and myth. In his article, “Joe Hill: I Never Died, Said He,” Ben Lefebvre notes that scattered “[r]eports and personal letters, many contradictory, depict a sort of ‘Johnny Laborseed’ traveling through the country doing odd jobs, assisting strikes and furthering the union cause.”
Hill arrived in the U.S. in 1902 as a young man seeking a new world and new opportunities. What he discovered was a devastated working class, one where the most vulnerable populations, including children and immigrants, were particularly exploited under horrific – and often fatal – working conditions.
Taking what jobs he could find here and there, Hill became a fervent activist in the labor movement. He worked when he could, and rabble-roused, making his way from New York to San Francisco. Hill hung around labor camps, “hobo jungles” and the occasional jail cell, and was always, always making up songs.
In 1910, he joined the San Pedro chapter of the IWW while working on the waterfront. Here is where he composed some of his best-known anthems, including “Rebel Girl,” inspired by his pal Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the leaders of the IWW and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He also wrote “The Preacher and the Slave,” set to the tune of the hymn, “In the Sweet By and By.” It’s a satirical number that criticizes the perceived virtuosity of poverty and the promise of “pie in the sky when you die.”
Laborers purchased Hill’s sheet music for a few cents apiece; before long, the songs took on a life of their own. As they were sung far and wide, at meetings, demonstrations, labor camps and protests, Hill got to be known as the mysterious, romantic, trouble-making troubadour of the working class.
Murder in Salt Lake City
Hill had made his way to Salt Lake City, Utah by June, 10, 1914 – which proved to be the wrong place, and the wrong time. The same night a local grocer and his son were shot and killed, Hill showed up at a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound of his own. He said he’d been in a fight defending a girl but didn’t explain further.
Based on his injury, and lack of a convincing alibi, Hill was charged with murder.
A controversial court case ensued. It lasted a year, and, as Lefebvre points out:
was by all accounts a shambles. Neither side could, or would, give concrete descriptions of what had happened on the night of the 10th. Moreover, it became quickly evident that conservative Utah did not like Hill or the IWW.
Contemporary historians continue to cite evidence that indicate Hill’s innocence, but Hill himself refused to testify in court. Did he believe that he would be more valuable to the cause if he died a martyr? It’s a conclusion that many have thought likely.
Hill was convicted of the murders, and following an unsuccessful appeal for clemency from high-profile figures, including then-President Woodrow Wilson, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. For most of those who followed the case, it seemed clear that Hill was a scapegoat, persecuted for his politics.
The day following Hill’s execution, his loyal comrade Elizabeth Gurley Flynn provided an emotional statement that was published in The New York Tribune. “[Hill] was as innocent of the murder of which he was accused as my little boy!” she declared. She told the press that upon his arrest, Hill had been shot in the hand, “the hand with which he played violin. Life to him without his music was not with living.”
She also shared the last message she received from Hill:
Composed new song last week, with music dedicated to the Dove of Peace. It is coming. And now, good-by Gurley, dear. I have lived like a rebel, and I shall die like a rebel.
In a final letter to “Big” Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW in Chicago, Hill famously wrote, "Don't waste any time mourning – organize!" which has been shortened into the enduring battle cry of labor unions: “Don’t mourn – organize!”
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night”
Even after his death, Hill’s contributions to the songbook of the labor movement continued. In 1936, Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson penned the song “Joe Hill” in tribute to the labor legend. Numerous artists around the world have covered the song, most famously Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969. It includes the lines:
“Joe Hill ain't dead," he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain't never died.
Where workingmen are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side.”
Hearing these songs is where this research project started. Overwhelmed by the abundance of resources available to explore Labor Day and labor history, it was challenging to narrow down a specific subject to explore in a brief blog post. Then we discovered these albums available from Alexander Street and our curiosity was piqued.
Listen to a playlist of albums that include versions of “Joe Hill” as well songs written by the troubadour of the labor movement, including:
Music Online: Listening collection
- Don't Mourn-Organize!: Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill
produced by Lori Taylor (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1990).
featuring Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Utah Philips, Hazel Dickson and others.
- The Complete A&M Recordings
performed by Joan Baez (A & M Records, 2003).
- Going Home
performed by Paul Robeson, 1898-1976 (Future Noise Music Ltd., 2008).
- Don't Mourn-Organize!: Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill
- I Will Win: Songs of the Wobblies
(Collector Records, 1977).
- Classic Labor Songs from Smithsonian Folkways
(Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2006).
- I Will Win: Songs of the Wobblies
Suggested sources for additional research:
History Vault: Workers, Labor Unions, and the American Left in the 20th Century
Key collections emphasize the interaction between workers and the federal government. Government surveillance files consist of U.S. Military Intelligence Reports on radicals and Department of Justice investigations of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Communist Party and the use of military force by the federal government in domestic disturbances. The Department of Justice records on the IWW generally concern the political creed of the IWW, its labor organizing and labor actions, its efforts to defend itself against prosecution through the U.S. legal system and the policies of the Department of Justice toward the IWW. The documents in this part of History Vault provide a first-hand account of IWW activities through correspondence, reports, and memos of the IWW, U.S. attorneys, U.S. marshals, state and local officials, and other businessmen and individuals. These files also include a substantial series of files on IWW prisoners who had typically been convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
Additional material on the IWW can also be found in History Vault: Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. This module of History Vault contains a series of records on “Suppression of Aliens” by the INS. The two major cases in this series focus on IWW members. The INS records reveal that IWW members represented a wide spectrum of immigrant communities, including Irish, British, Russian, Austrian, Swedish, and Norwegian immigrants. This collection is particularly interesting because the interviews conducted as part of deportation investigations disclose a variety of views on anarchism, sabotage, and government and society, from the perspective of those in the lower rungs of the movement, not the more widely-studied leaders.
Ornstein, C. (2013). Rallying cry: Songs of social change the artists they motivated the movements they inspired (Order No. EP76997). (1761625592).
Morse, P. H., Jr. (2006). Wobbly identities: Race, gender, and radical industrial unionists in the united states, 1900–1920 (Order No. 3220356)
Waisala, W. E. (1997). To bring forth a note of one's own: Contested memory and the labor literature of the haymarket tragedy, the triangle fire, and joe hill (Order No. 9731447). (304358881).
Berman, D. R. (2007). Radicalism in the mountain west, 1890-1920: socialists, populists, miners, and wobblies.
Chester, E. T. (2014). Wobblies in their heyday: the rise and destruction of the industrial workers of the world during the world war I era.
Phillips, U. (2016). Big red songbook: 250+ IWW songs!
Lefebvre, B. (2005, 12). JOE HILL: 'I NEVER DIED,' SAID HE. American History, 40, 56-62,10.
Rosemont, F. (2015). Joe hill: the iww & the making of a revolutionary workingclass counterculture.
HATE SLEW POET, SAYS MISS FLYNN. (1915, Nov 20). New - York Tribune (1911-1922)