Why I dreamed I would see Joe Hill one night

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Most Australians have heard of the name Joe Hill, but few know the story of the songwriter who died a martyr for his union. Today, labor activists, historians and folklorists around the world commemorate his life on the 100th anniversary of his death by firing squad in Utah. Graham Hardy salutes him.

JOE HILL is credited with first coining the phrase “pie in the sky”. But why was he, or at least his ashes, said to be producing music when he was ten years dead? This month, groups of labor historians, labor activists and folklorists will gather at venues, scattered around the world and the east states of Australia to commemorate Joe Hill.

Hill has been immortalised by British writer Alfred Hayes in the 1925 song that has been a staple of the concerts of Joan Baez and the late Paul Robeson.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

Alive as you or me

Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead

I never died, says he

I never died, says he.

In fact, Hill will be 100 years dead today, November 19, but his memory and songs will live on in a film showing at the Victorian Trades Hall, and in concerts by U.S. singer George Mann in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong and Hobart.

Who was Joe Hill? He was a songwriter, a singer, a union activist and he was executed by firing squad in Utah.

One of the legends about Hill is that on the eve of his execution he wrote to a union colleague, saying:

'Don’t waste any time mourning, organise!'

When Joe Hill emigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1902, at the age of 23, he joined the thousands of low skilled immigrant workers who were exploited and played off against each other. In 1910, Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) which had been founded in 1905 and aimed to organise “one big union” to unify all workers across employer and skill boundaries.

Hill wrote many songs, which appeared in the IWW’s Little Red Song Book. Songs were as important for rallying workers as they were for religious rallies, and the two sometimes competed.

In one song, the phrase "Pie in the Sky" is believed to have been first coined.

It was in '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 how ’bout something to eat

They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.


And one of his ballads, 'Coffee An' could strike a chord with 457 visa holders and overseas student workers in Australia today:

An employment shark the other day I went to see,

And he said come in and buy a job from me,

Just a couple of dollars, for the office fee,

The job is steady and the fare is free.

I shipped out and worked and slept in lousy bunks,

And the grub it stunk as bad as forty-‘leven skunks,

When I slaved a week the boss he said one day,

You’re too tired, you are fired, go and get your pay.

When the clerk commenced to count, Oh holy gee!

Road, school and poll tax and hospital fee.

Then I fainted, and I nearly lost my sense

When the clerk he said: “You owe me fifty cents.”

David Rovics' song for Joe Hill

Hill’s activism drew the attention of police. He was arrested by police in 1913 and held for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy.

Six months later, a grocer and his son were shot and killed in an apparent robbery. Testimony from a 13 year old boy suggested one of the assailants might have been wounded by return fire from the son. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Hill had gone to a doctor that night with a bullet wound, claiming that a jealous husband had shot him.

Although five people in that town had presented to doctors for bullet wounds that night, Hill had the same general shape and size of the robber. As he refused to say who the woman was in order to protect her honour, he had no alibi. On that circumstantial evidence, he was convicted and sentenced to death — which in Utah was by firing squad.

Despite a campaign by labor activists, sympathisers, trade unionists and pleas by the Swedish ambassador, and despite two pleas for clemency by the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Hill was executed.

One of the legends that surrounded the execution of Joe Hill is that a member of the firing squad claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.

Hill wrote to a colleague:

'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.'

Hill also asked that his body be cremated and his ashes scattered. His body was cremated. Portion of his ashes were placed in guitars of other IWW musicians. Some of those guitars are still held today. And folklorists still sing that 1925 song.

And standing there as big as life

And smiling with his eyes

Joe says, What they forgot to kill

Went on to organise

Went on to organise

At the Victorian Trades Hall this evening Thursday 19 November, the film Joe Hall  by Swedish director Bo Widerberg will be shown at 6pm, preceded by a performance by the Trades Hall Choir and a short introduction by former Independent politician Phil Cleary, all beginning at 5pm.

Bo Widerberg’s film won the Cannes Jury Prize in 1971. It dramatises Joe Hill’s life as an impoverished, unorganised immigrant worker in the United States. Bo Widerberg’s vision for Swedish cinema departed radically from the style and ethos of filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman. Widerberg was a political filmmaker who wanted to tell stories about ordinary people and their struggles.

For details of other Australian celebrations featuring labor, anti-war singer/songwriter and folk musician, George Mann, see HERE.

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