As I was closing tabs on my Opera browser tonight I caught a glimpse of Today’s Birthdays in Music from MusicOrb. The page was all the way to the top and birth years ranging from 1698 to 1880 were visible. There in 1879 was a name familiar to most folk music fans, Joe Hill. While I knew the name and the song “Joe Hill”, which has been covered by many artists, I realized that I didn’t know much about the man beyond the fact that he was a labor activist. That meant I needed to go to Wikipedia to find out more about Joe. From Wikipedia:
Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden, and also known as Joseph Hillström (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915) was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the “Wobblies”). A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco. Hill, as an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular song writer and cartoonist for the radical union. His most famous songs include “The Preacher and the Slave”, “The Tramp”, “There is Power in a Union”, “The Rebel Girl”, and “Casey Jones—the Union Scab”, which generally express the harsh but combative life of itinerant workers, and the apparent necessity of organizing to improve conditions for working people. Read More
My next stop was MOG. I was scrolling down the list of the folks who had covered the song “Joe Hill” when I spied a song call “Joe Hill’s Last Will” by Utah Phillips. I stopped and listened and heard Utah tell the story of Joe’s execution in Utah after being tried and convicted of a murder that he most likely did not commit. The story from Wikipedia:
As an itinerant worker, Hill moved around the west, hopping freight trains, going from job to job. By the end of 1913, he was working as a laborer at the Silver King Mine in Park City, Utah, not far from Salt Lake City. On January 10, 1914, John G. Morrison and his son Arling were killed in their Salt Lake City grocery store by two armed intruders masked in red bandanas. The police first thought it was a crime of revenge, for nothing had been stolen and the elder Morrison had been a police officer, possibly creating many enemies. On the same evening, Joe Hill appeared on the doorstep of a local doctor, with a bullet wound through the left lung. Hill said that he had been shot in an argument over a woman, whom he refused to name. The doctor reported that Hill was armed with a pistol. Considering Morrison’s past as a police officer, several men he had arrested were at first considered suspects; 12 people were arrested in the case before Hill was arrested and charged with the murder. A red bandana was found in Hill’s room. The pistol purported to be in Hill’s possession at the doctor’s office was not found. Hill resolutely denied that he was involved in the robbery and killing of Morrison. He said that when he was shot, his hands were over his head, and the bullet hole in his coat — four inches below the exit wound in his back — seemed to support this claim. Hill did not testify at his trial, but his lawyers pointed out that four other people were treated for bullet wounds in Salt Lake City that same night, and that the lack of robbery and Hill’s unfamiliarity with Morrison left him with no motive.
Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. Just prior to his execution, Hill had written to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, “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.“
His last will, which was eventually set to music by Ethel Raim, founder of the group The Pennywhistlers, reads:
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. Good Luck to All of you, Joe Hill
Here’s folksinger Chico Schwall performing and telling us more about – “Joe Hill’s Will”.