On this date in 1879, union organizer, itinerant laborer, poet and songwriter Joe Hill (né Joel Hagglund) was born in Gavle, Sweden, the fourth of six children. His parents, Olaf and Margareta Katarina Hagglund, were devout Lutherans who enjoyed music immensely, filling their home with song. Hill started composing songs when he was still relatively young, and played the piano in local cafes as he got older.
Only nine years old when his father died, Joe, along with his siblings, was forced to leave school and go to work in order to support his large family. Joe worked many hard labor jobs, from rope factory to crane operator. At age 20, Hill was diagnosed with skin and joint tuberculosis. He moved to Stockholm for treatment, undergoing a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck, incurring scars which remained for the rest of his life.
His mother died of complications from a back operation when Hill was 22. Joe and his brother, Paul, went to America, and the other children stayed in Sweden. Working various laborer jobs over the years, from the east coast to the west, Hill started his life as a union organizer, writing songs about the experiences of the working class, bringing their plight to homes across America. Songs about immigrant factory workers, homeless migratory workers and railway shopcraft workers were common themes and became a part of the International Workers of the World’s (IWW, “Wobblies”) Little Red Song Book. Hill’s songs include: “The Tramp,” “There is Power in the Union,” “Rebel Girl,” and “Casey Jones – Union Scab.” Hill’s irreverent classic, “The Preacher and the Slave” parodies the hymn, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and lampoons the Salvation Army (“The Starvation Army”). (See song below.)
Always the rebel, Hill was at the center of strikes, fights for the emancipation of the working class, and protests alongside socialists, suffragists and AFL members. In 1914, a Utah grocer and his son were killed, in what appeared to be a revenge killing. The grocer, a former law enforcement officer, had recently reported concerns about a suspect from his former life to police. Police picked up Hill, an unpopular newcomer to the Utah scene, who had been treated for a gun-shot wound by a physician. Hill didn’t help himself, in (gallantly, he maintained) refusing to provide details about his alibi involving being shot in a woman’s room by a rival. Although the evidence was circumstantial only 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, the beloved labor organizer was executed.
The death of Joe Hill made his cause for the union more widely known than it had been during his lifetime. Just before his death he wrote 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, after his cremation his ashes were distributed to every IWW local, except for the one in Utah. More than 30,000 people attended his Hill’s funeral. According to an article in the Desert Evening News (Utah, 1915): “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.”
On the eve of his execution, Hill wrote: “My body? Ah, if I could choose/ I would to ashes it reduce,/ And let the merry breezes blow/ My dust to where some fading flowers grow./ Perhaps some fading flowers then/ Would come to life and bloom again./ This is my last and final will./ Good luck to you.”
A lovely ballad, “Joe Hill,” written by Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson, commemmorates his work: ” ‘From San Diego up to Maine,/ ‘In every mine and mill, /’Where workers strike and organize,’ Says he, ‘You’ll find Joe Hill.’ ” D. 1915.
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:
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!)