Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Centennial of the Perforation of Joe Hill

This oil painting of Joe Hill hung in the IWW General Headquarters in Chicago for many years.  When I was General Secretary Treasurer in 1971 he looked down at me late at night as I worked at Big Bill Haywood's old desk, a constant reminder of the real seriousness of what I was doing.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the execution of Joe Hill by a Utah firing squad.  Hill has become the greatest folk hero of both the labor movement and the American left but was once a living, breathing very human being.  For the past year celebrations of Hill’s life and death have been building not only in this country, but around the world.
His fighting union, the Industrial Workers of the World has naturally led the way.  The singing Kentucky railroad engineer John Paul Wright and other IWW musicians  organized a series of regional tours collectively known as the Joe Hill 100 Road Show which have brought his music and music in his working class tradition to towns all across the U.S.  Each section of the tour featured regional artists and some of the most admired folk singers and musical activists around.  After a Wobbly organized vigil at Sugar Hill Park, 1400 East 2100 South, Salt Lake City, site of the now razed prison where Hill was shot, at 6 pm tonight, there will be a Road Show performance at the State Room, 638 South State Street in Salt Lake on Friday, November 20 at 8 pm featuring Otis Gibbs, Duncan Phillips—son of the legendary Wobbly singer Utah Phillips—, Kate McLeod, Walter Parks, the Utah County Swillers, and others.

Joe Hill Organizing Committee composed of folks in Salt Lake including musicians, unionists, teachers, historians, and writers has organized a series of events over the past year which the promote on the web page  The biggest of the events was a free Labor Day Concert at Sugar Hill Park featuring Judy Collins, Dave Rovics, Anne Feeney, Guy Davis, Joe Jencks, and Mark Ross among others.  Tonight they will present a performance of Joe Hill’s Last Will, a one-man show starring John McCutcheon which brings to life the life and music of Joe Hill from his prison cell on his last day.  The play was written by Si Kahn, the legendary labor and protest singer/songwriter.  The play will be presented at the State Room at 7 pm.
This past Tuesday Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Autoslave, the E-Street Band and his solo project, The Night Watchman, assembled an all-star Joe Hill Centenary Concert at the Trocadero in Los Angeles.  Morello is a long time IWW member who usually performs in his Wobbly baseball cap.  Leading the guest line-up was Joan Baez whose performance of I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night was one of the stunning moments at Woodstock in 1979.  Also featured in the sold out show were Ziggy Marley, Rich Robinson, Boots Riley, Tim Armstrong, Wayne Kramer, Van Dyke Parks, Jill Sobule, and The Last Internationale.
On Wednesday night in Chicago singer, songwriter, rocker, and labor historian Bucky Halker held a release party for his new CD, Anywhere But Utah: Songs Of Joe Hill with guest artists including British labor balladeer Jon Langford, Cathy Richardson, Big Shoulders Brass Band, Brother John Kattke, Don Stiernberg, St Paul Swedish Men’s Choir, and Sue Demel.  It is just one of several new recording projects featuring Joe Hill’s songs or inspired by his legacy.  Take the young radical rappers and hip-hop musicians who are raising money right now for an album of Joe Hill songs with a contemporary and urban twist as another example.

Joe Hill is still not safe from repression in Utah.  Days after Heidi and Josh Belka, members of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees painted this tribute to Hill as part of the Centennial commemorations in Salt Lake on their union hall, it was painted over with an American Flag after complaints that Hill was a Communist--a member of a party that did not even exist in 1915.  The couple later found another site and completed a different version.
Independently organized musical tributes and concerts were organized in other U.S. cities and there have been shows in Canada, Britain, Australia, and of course in Hill’s native Sweden where he is a national hero.  In addition there have been countless other programs, academic conferences, lectures, symposiums, dramatic presentations, and street theater performances.  The level of interest nearly matches that for the centennial of Woody Guthrie’s birth a couple of years ago—minus the museum and the white washing adoption of the writer of This Land is My Land, by authorities.  By contrast Hill was, and is, a subversive who will never earn a condescending pat on the head from the inheritors of the forces that killed him.
Hill would probably enjoy that his music still seems relevant.  But he would be most pleased that his songs are sung on the streets around the world in mass protests against war, austerity, and repression.
On November 19, 1915 Utah authorities took Joe Hill from his prison cell, tied him to a straight back chair, blindfolded him and pinned a paper heart on his chest.  Then, in accordance with the local custom a firing squad of five men, four of them with live rounds in their rifles and one with a blank, perforated that paper valentine.

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson goes "I never died said he."  Only metaphorically true as this postmortem photo proves.  To quote the coroner in the Wizard of Oz the State of Utah could make sure that Hill was " really, most sincerely dead."
No one was better at setting words to popular or sacred songs to use in educating and rousing up workers than Joseph Hillstrom, a Swedish immigrant who drifted into the migratory labor life of the American West shortly after the dawn of the 20th Century. He was born as Joel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden and immigrated to the U.S. under the name Hillstrom in 1902 learning English in New York and staying for a while in Cleveland, Ohio before drifting west

He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1910 and was soon sending songs to IWW newspapers, including his most famous composition, The Preacher and the Slave, meant to be sung to the music of the Salvation Army bands who were frequently sent to street corners to drown out Wobbly soapbox orators.
As a footloose Wobbly Hill was likely to blow into any western town where there was a strike or free speech fight going.  He was a big part of any Little Red Songbook from 1913 on with such contributions as The Tramp, There is Power in the Union, Casey Jones the Union Scab, Scissor Bill, Mr. Block, and Where the River Frasier Flows.  He also began to compose original music as well, the most famous of which was The Rebel Girl which he dedicated to the teen-age organizer of Eastern mill girls, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. 
Hill also dispatched caustic, if crude, cartoons to Industrial Solidarity, the union’s newspaper, some of which ended up on silent agitatorsstickers meant to slapped up in mess halls, in lumber camps, in city flops and beaneries, and even on the factory floor.   
Joe Hill was often the first fellow worker ready to take the stump at a free speech fight and the first arrested.  He was loved by his fellow working stiffs and feared as an enormous pain in the side of western bosses.
Hill came to Salt Lake City where the local copper barons feared he might bring their miners out on strike.  The small IWW miner’s local there was a target of police harassment.  But hill apparently had no specific  plans and was just booming around looking for work and possibly a place to winter over with sympathetic local Swedes.  After he showed up at a doctor’s office with a bullet wound, he was arrested and charged with the robbery and murder of a grocer, a former policeman named Morrison—and his son the night before.  He told police that a woman’s honor was involved and would say no more.  He was tried, convicted and executed by firing squad in 1915.  He was just 36 years old.
Most scholars agree that it was physically impossible for him to have been involved in the robbery or to be shot by the grocer.  But questions always lingered about the bullet wound and that vague alibi. 
Finally in 2013 writer William M. Adler did remarkable spade work and an exhaustive investigation of Hill time in Salt Lake in his book The Man Who Never Died, The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon.  Adler identified the likely real murder of grocery store owner and his son—Magnus Olson, a career criminal with a long record who was known to be in the area and who had beef with the former policeman.  The police had even picked him up as a possible suspect but he talked his way out of it and hid his identity under a welter of aliases.  Olson also matched the physical description of the assailant given by Morrison’s surviving son, which Hill did not.
Then Adler identified the mysterious woman—20 year old Hilda Ericson, the daughter of the family which ran the rooming house in suburban Murray where he was staying.  She had been engaged to Hill's friend, fellow Swede and Fellow Worker Otto Applequist who also boarded at the house.  Joe won the girl’s heart and she threw over Applequist for the Wobbly bard.  An upset Applequist shot Hill in a fit of jealousy, but immediately regretted it and was the man who took Joe to the doctor for treatment.  After taking Hill back to the rooming house he packed his bag and left at 2 am with the excuse he had gone looking for work.  Hill refused to name Applequist out of loyalty to his friend, and refused to identify the girl to spare her public humiliation—or perhaps to spare her and her family the risk of persecution from the police for providing an alibi.   And despite all that it cost him, Hill refused to say more.
The judgment of history is that Joe Hill was framed.  He became a martyr to labor in no small measure because of his Last Words, a letter to IWW General Secretary Treasurer William D. “Big Bill” Haywood, “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.” That has been shortened as a union motto to “Don’t Mourn Organize.”
He also composed a memorable Last Will:

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 a 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.e
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill.

The coffin bearing Joe Hill's ashes is escorted on Thanksgiving Day  from a Chicago funeral home on its way the West Side Auditorium for funeral exercises.  From there a procession took the ashes to Waldheim Cemetery where most of the ashes were scattered around the Haymarket Martyrs monument.  It was one of the largest funerals held in Chicago up to that time.
In keeping with Hill’s wishes his body was shipped by rail to Chicago, home of the IWW’s General Headquarters where it was cremated.   His funeral was attended by thousands at the Westside Auditorium on Thanksgiving Day where Haywood, spoke along with tributes in several other languages and performances of Hill’s songs.  The funeral possession was reportedly one of the largest ever held in Chicago up to that time.  It took Hill’s remains to Waldheim Cemetery—now known as Forest Home Cemetery—where the bulk of his ashes were scattered around the Haymarket Martyrs Memorial.
The rest of his ashes were divided into several small manila envelopes which were sent to IWW locals or delegates in all 48 states except Utah, to Sweden, and to other countries.  Over the years some packets of Hill’s ashes have surfaced—some that were seized by the Federal Government in its 1919 nationwide raids on IWW halls and offices were returned to the union by the National Archives in 1988.  The packets have been disposed of in various ways, some ceremonial, some not.  British labor singer Billy Bragg reportedly ate some.  West coast Wobbly singer Mark Ross has some inside his guitar.  Former Industrial Worker editor Carlos Cortez scattered ashes at the dedication of a monument to the six striking coal miners killed by Colorado State Police machine gun fire in the 1927 Columbine Mine Massacre.   An urn kept at General Headquarters in Chicago contains the last known ashes.

No comments:

Post a Comment