Joe Hill: Sing a new song on the centennial of a labor union activist

Black-and-white portrait of middle-aged man with a button-up shirt and hat askew

A portrait of Joe Hill. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, JULY 18: One hundred years after the conviction of Joe Hill—the presence of the famed union activist, songwriter and miner is as strong as ever. It was said of Hill, “it takes more than guns to kill a man.” Though he was executed at a youthful 36, the legend of Joe Hill lives far beyond his years—in movements reflecting Hill’s sense of justice.

Often portrayed as a political martyr, Joe Hill secured his place in history when he gave his life in the name of his cause. Yet any true follower of Hill would starkly recognize the request left before his execution: “Don’t waste time mourning—organize.” In other words—remember him best by putting into action what he fought for. (Interest in Hill’s story was renewed in 2011, with a new biography—read reviews from the New York Times and Newcity.)

Hill’s immortal words have since been shortened into the union catchphrase, “Don’t Mourn, Organize.”

JOE HILL:
FROM SWEDEN TO AMERICA

A Swedish immigrant, Joel Hagglund came to America with high hopes, changing his name to Joseph Hillstrom and, later, Joe Hill.

He had high hopes, but the reality of American life soon hit: Hill had trouble finding work and wound up in the lower working class in New York, then later found himself living in a hobo jungle. Hill moved with the immigrant masses, bouncing from job to job. For that reason, few details exist about the majority of Hill’s life. Only when Hill became a Wobbly—a member of the Industrial Workers of the World—did he become renowned for the music and revolutionary spirit that inspired thousands of laborers. (Wikipedia has details.)

Hill’s labor tunes urged workers to quit thinking of themselves as a dispirited crowd of immigrants—and, instead, to take heart and show confidence through singing and organized efforts to improve their lot in life. As one writer commented, during a strike, “There was in it a peculiar, intense, vital spirit, a religious spirit if you will—that I never felt before in any strike.” Nationalities and differing languages came together to sing Hill’s tunes in unison. Even if jailed for their protests, the workers would sing piercingly until their release.

Brought up in the Lutheran Church, Hill borrowed the tunes for many of his labor songs from popular hymns.

A JURY AND EXECUTION IN SALT LAKE CITY

In January of 1914, during a labor action involving Hill, a Salt Lake City shopkeeper and his son were killed in their store. There was no clear evidence of a connection, but Hill was suspected in the crime because he had suffered a gunshot wound the same night. Though evidence has since come forth that Hill had been engaged in conflict elsewhere, in a fight over his love, the Utah jury found him guilty of the murders in the store. Uproar from around the world erupted, with President Woodrow Wilson writing twice to Utah’s governor—and unions as distant as Australia protesting his conviction. Yet Hill refused to give an alibi or release the name of his sweetheart, and he was executed by a firing squad on November 19, 1915.

Interested in memorializing the mission of Joe Hill? Check out the Facebook page dedicated to Joe Hill’s Centennial Celebration, on September 5, 2015.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tell Us What You Think