The Brief, Revolutionary Life of Joe Hill

Published on political affairs pa, by John Pietaro, November 2, 2009.

… Joel Emmanuel Haaglund (1878-1915), more commonly known as Joe Hill, was – and remains – the guiding force of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and stands as a vision of revolutionary arts for all of the labor movement. His execution at the hands of a corrupt reactionary force is recalled each November 19, and Hill’s legacy is preserved with each strike, each job action and every time radical labor sings out against injustice as a unified choir.

A model for the fighting cultural worker, Joe Hill wrote globally relevant, militant topical songs and biting parodies in support of the union cause and in the process, spawned a legend. Among his most lasting pieces are “The Preacher and the Slave,” “Casey Jones, the Union Scab,” “There is Power in the Union,” “Mr. Block” and “Where the Fraser River Flows,” in addition to those cited by Reed in the above article, amidst an stream of others.

He performed on piano, guitar and various other instruments, composing songs in bars and IWW halls at night, so that he would have them ready for union meetings, pickets and other functions the next day, spreading the word of this international industrial union through music. Hill came to the US from Sweden as a young man and saw firsthand the terrible conditions workers had to endure in the first part of the twentieth century; shortly thereafter he pledged allegiance to the cause of the IWW. He became a mythic character in all Left factions when he was silenced by the state of Utah via his unjust execution. Famously, his last written statement was “Don’t mourn for me – organize.” Hill, for all the mythology that surrounds him, has been the subject of numerous biographical sketches; his life and the frame-up which ended it have been principal to the labor historians’ repertoire … //

… Greenway rather notoriously derided Hill in this 1953 book, which – in the midst of the McCarthyism surrounding radical movements of the time – offered a rather dogged criticism of some of the edges of Left music history. He describes Joe Hill as one “who was responsible for his own beatification” and with “an almost unparalleled flair for self-dramatization” (Greenway page 189). However, within the negativism of Greenway’s curmudgeonly viewpoint, he offers examples of other perspectives, namely that of Ralph Chaplin, perhaps the Wob’s second most important cultural worker. Greenway quotes from Chaplin’s 1938 autobiography, Wobbly, in which he describes an encounter with Hill’s cousin in a Cleveland, Ohio. Chaplin wrote that it was past midnight when

… an IWW lake seaman tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving and he asked me if I wanted to get the full story of Joe Hill’s life. “Joe’s cousin is here,” he said. “His name is John Holland. Buy him a drink and he’ll tell all.” … John Holland turned out to be deeply-bronzed and somewhat inebriated deep-sea sailor whose blue eyes and blond hair contrasted strikingly with his complexion. He had a true mariner’s taciturnity, plus a classic Swedish accent. Word by word and drink by drink, I got the story out of him and wrote it down in my notebook … (5)

Chaplin, via John Holland’s account, explained that Hill came to this country from Sweden in 1902, when he was twenty years old. He’d left Sweden after the death of his mother and, landing in New York City, found work as a porter in a Bowery saloon among other odd jobs. Hill and his cousin made their way to the West Coast, with a stop along the way in Chicago. Residing, finally, in San Pedro California, Joe Hill worked as a longshoreman as well as on steam freighters and it was at this time that he was said to have first joined the IWW. Chaplin, of course, also wrote about Hill the musician: … //

… The funeral of Joe Hill, beyond an emotional memorial for a fallen comrade, was all the more a symbol of international solidarity. While the many were touched by the presence of Joe Hill the man, the vast majority was moved toward action—and continue to be moved in this manner – by Joe Hill the legend. And this is why the labor bard’s ashes could be scattered about the country in 1915 yet he remains with us as a concrete, material reality. (full long text and references 1 – 21).

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