Joe Hill: the Man Who

by Rita Leydon ©1997
 

I had a friend named Knut whom I used to visit with occasionally. Knut would share things he thought important with me, I guess because he was old and I was young, relatively speaking. One particular day I found him sitting solemnly at his kitchen table, with a book in his hands and tears in his eyes. “Let me read you something,” he said, and proceeded to read the following:

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

Will come to life and bloom again.

This is my Last and Final Will.

Good luck to All of you.

“The Last and Final Will of a Swede wrongfully executed in Utah many years ago,” Knut explained as he became emotionally stirred once again. Thus began my deeper education about one Joe Hill. I say “deeper” because although I had heard of Hill—meaning I knew the Joe Hill song—I had no clue that he was a real person or that we shared a motherland as well as strong working class passions. Had no knowledge of the impact of Joe Hill and his legend on struggling working people ever since his untimely death. Over many months that followed, Knut schooled me about Joe Hill and much else besides. Knut is gone now, but I have his book and all the good stuff he shared with me. Many fondly held memories.

Tens of thousands of Swedes poured onto the North American continent during the decades embracing the turn of the last century. Two of these, Joel Hägglund and his brother Paul—who called him “Julle”—made the journey in 1902. My friend Knut arrived as a ten year old orphan in 1931, searching for a father he didn’t know. My own immediate family trickled over in 1959 (Dad) and 1960 (Mom and the kids). Earlier family contributions to the American mix included Moster Greta (Farmor’s youngest sister) in the 30s and Faster Gerd (Dad’s sister) in the 40s. All of us have heart and soul on two continents, just like most other inhabitants of this Promised Land. The reality is that I have considered myself a global citizen for as long as I’ve had a legal signature. My spices are Swedish as are my roots, while my life and children are American. My ultimate allegiance, however, when all is said and done, is decidedly global. Imagine the singing of my sympathetic strings when I first read the following words written by Joe Hill:

Biography you say? No. Let’s not spoil good writing paper with such nonsense—only the here and now is of concern to me. I am a “citizen of the world” and I was born on a planet called the earth. The exact spot where first I saw the light of day is of such slight importance that it deserves no comment—I haven’t much to say about myself. Will only say that I have done what little I could to bring the flag of freedom closer to its goal.

This was written in 1915 as Hill awaited execution in the fair State of Utah. Joe had many adventures between disembarking in New York in 1902 and biting the dust involuntarily in Salt Lake City thirteen years later. Becoming food for legend was not part of his plan.

The “exact spot” happened to be Gävle—a couple of hours north of Stockholm by car—and the year was 1879. Mother Margareta Katarina produced nine times—Joel was one of six who survived childhood. Father Olof was a järnvägskonduktör (railroad conductor). The Hägglunds were devout parishioners of the local Bethlehem Church. Religious activities as well as family life involved lots of music and singing. Joe is reputed to have played organ, piano, accordion, banjo, guitar and fiddle. He said once he enjoyed playing his violin more than eating. A sister shared that as children they were taught to “be obedient to God and the King and to submit to all authority.” Pappa Olof died in 1887. Mamma Margareta in 1902. The family home on Nedre Bergsgatan in Gävle was sold and the family dissolved. Not uncommon.

Last summer my husband and I flew to Sweden and participated in the Hälsinge Hambo dance competition. Afterwards we had a chance to visit Joe Hill Gården—which is what the old family homestead is now called—and pay our respects to a clear minded visionary. Gävle lies in the province of Gästrikland, tucked neatly between Hälsingland and Uppland. Easy to find, the historic site welcomed and added two rumpled dancers to its list of roughly 10,000 annual visitors. Owned by the Swedish arm of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World)—SAC (Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation)—Gården serves as memorial to Joe Hill and as meeting place for the local union. We were greeted by an open sunny courtyard and garden with several simple period buildings encircling. Freshly restored and well tended. A block or so away, the town of Gävle has erected a lovely dual monument honoring their illustrious emigrant son. They are proud of him even though he didn’t make mention of them much after he left. Chris and I soaked up the atmosphere and departed feeling complete.

The man who was christened Joel Emanuel Hägglund in 1879, stepped off a boat in New York in 1902 as Joseph Hillström. In 1905 he Americanized his name to the short and sweet Joe Hill.

The brothers Hägglund had studied both written and spoken English back home in Sweden and they arrived on these shores ready for action. Both harbored that golden vision of America as a place of prosperity and opportunity. Paul melts into the American pot and we don’t know what becomes of him. Joe works his strong supple body in factories and mines, on farms and waterfronts as he labors his way west to the port of San Pedro in California. It is 1905 and a well tempered Joe joins ranks there with the newly formed IWW—The One Big Union—his loyalties having departed from “God, King and all authority” to that of a true-blue rebel vigilantly opposed to existing social and economic inequalities. It appears he learned a great deal crossing the American continent. Real life proved to be a very effective teacher to those on the lowest rung of the economic ladder—the oppressed foreign migrant workers that swell our work force from time to time.

Joe was a clean-cut sort of fellow. Neat and tidy. A loner who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. Maybe a bit anti-social. He didn’t particularly care to talk about himself. He was not entirely forgetful of his origins though. When he survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco he wrote a lengthy description and sent it to the newspaper in his hometown. It was published in the May 16th edition that year.

It is in San Pedro that Joe starts composing new verses to go with popular melodies of the day. Lyrical parodies that soon become the voice of angry migrant workers and hoboes from sea to shining sea. Lamentations of every day disappointments, disillusions, difficulties, hard pills, bitter tastes and injustices. Joe writes, performs, agitates and unwittingly becomes the charismatic musical leader among his fellow Wobblies (IWW members). This is a shoe that fits. Joe Hill recreates himself in a spot on the globe fully opposite the chance location of his birth. From this time forward the undercurrent in all his affairs and creative works is his belief in the power of a united working class. He devotes his whole being to the IWW and the “class struggle.” His exertions were intended to awaken an awareness of exploitation by the capitalist system among “wage slaves.” Joe Hill, troubadour and songsmith, becomes the Poet Laureate of Labor.

Joe was prolific. The Wobblies identified with his songs and wore them threadbare like old comfortable coats. His songs grew wings and took off on lives of their own. Songbirds warbling melodiously all over America. Joe garnered no gold worth mentioning from his musical talents. That wasn’t the point anyway. Heart and principle drove his creative muse. When the 1913 edition of the IWW’s “Little Red Songbook”—Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent—came out, it included thirteen Hill songs. Joe’s lyrics were sung on picket lines, street corners, in hobo jungles and at mass meetings. Song has long been a tool of social protest. Hill songs still—today—generate energy and camaraderie on picket lines and at gatherings. Forge a sense of unity and focus. Inspire enlistment fervor. Facilitate education. A pamphlet may be read once or not at all. A song is adopted by the heart and mind and sung over and over again. A song can be a fine tuning fork. We all love to sing. It’s a human way of belonging. A way to rejoice and suffer together.

Two of Hill’s best known works are The Preacher and the Slave and Casey Jones, the Union Scab. The first was a stinging parody on the Salvation Army’s hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye. It spread like wildfire across a dry prairie and is perhaps better know as the Pie in the Sky song. The second, Casey Jones, was written in response to a rail strike involving 35,000 shopmen on the Illinois Central and Harriman owned lines, including the Southern Pacific, between 1911 and 1915.

By 1913, Joe was working his way east again. He stopped off in Utah to help with the organization of underpaid and exploited copper miners. When the new year rolled around, he was still in Utah. On January 14th he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and managed to get himself framed on a murder charge. Inconclusive circumstantial evidence presented at a mockery of a trial—generally agreed to have been a judicial scandal—led to Joe’s sad fate and third incarnation as a Legend with a capital L. The nation and in fact the world was watching. International protest welled up in favor of Joe’s continued existence as a Living, Breathing Songsmith. President Woodrow Wilson pleaded on his behalf. The Swedish government pleaded. Helen Keller pleaded. Various governors pleaded. As well as the rank and file. Utah had wads of fluff in its ears and executed their man with a five gun salute on the morning of November 19, 1915. The general consensus seems to be that Joe Hill was rubbed out by the judiciary in conspiracy with mine owners who wished to silence his songs. Utah smugly thought that was the end of Joe Hill and the passions he aroused. Utah was mistaken.

Joe Hill knew how to use words to their full effect, and from behind the prison walls his pen kept right on moving. Songs. Letters. Articles. More songs. Interviews. Encouraging those he would leave behind. “SÖRJ EJ—ORGANISERA!” (Don’t waste time mourning—organize!) Hill’s body was transported by rail to Chicago, home of the IWW. Thirty thousand mourners marched in one of the biggest funeral processions seen anywhere. There were eulogies in nine languages. Hill’s remains were reduced to ash and that ash was spooned into hundreds of little envelopes which were then dispersed via the IWW organization to countries all over the globe, and to all states, with the exception of Utah. On Labor Day—May 1st—1916, Joe was released to the winds. In Gävle, at Joe Hill Gården, one small envelope was opened under a cherry tree.

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. In 1925 these lyrics (plus six more verses) were written by Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson. Today they constitute a bona fide American Folksong. The amazingly gifted and misunderstood singer, Paul Robeson, performed, popularized and recorded this song repeatedly over the next several decades. In the 30s when he sang it to a group of Welsh miners in London, they were thunderstruck. In 1949 Robeson brought it to a sympathetic crowd at Stockholm’s Gärdet—the traditional gathering place for Swedish workers. During the Depression years Hill’s songs resurfaced and Pie in the Sky became the theme song of the era. Carl Sandburg, another American with Swedish roots, included a Joe Hill song in his “The American Songbag” (1927) and later made reference to Hill in his long 1936 poem “The People, Yes.” Our own well loved Pete Seeger keeps on including old Hill standards in his folk and protest song repertoire—especially that working man favorite Casey Jones. Joe Hill, indeed, has never died.

Published in Political Affairs, Theoretical Journal, Communist Party USA, October 1997

 

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