Celebrating Joe Hill on Labor Day

“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
They shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

— Paul Robeson (and many others), Joe Hill

This past Saturday I took my three-year-old son down to Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City for the Joe Hill Centennial Celebration. The event — which included food, printmaking, and of course lots of good folk music — took place on the site of the former prison where Hill was executed, 100 years ago this November. In honor of labor day, I, too, want to take a moment to celebrate the life and art of one of the labor movement’s foremost cultural organizers.

A Swedish immigrant who came to the US in 1902, Joe Hill worked as an itinerant laborer in cities across the country including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Portland. In 1910, while working on the docks in San Pedro, Hill joined the International Workers of the World (IWW). A long-time agitator and an organizer, Hill was, at heart, an artist. He played played multiple instruments, drew cartoons, wrote poetry, and, most famously, wrote some of the labor movement’s most memorable songs. As Michael Löwy writes, for Hill, to be an artist meant to be a “rebel.”

While awaiting execution, Joe Hill wrote, in two separate letters: “I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist,” and “I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel.” For him, being an artist and a rebel were the same.

Hill’s songs, which were featured in the Wobblies’ “little red songbook,” celebrated the power of unions, criticized scabs, and promoted class consciousness. He once wrote, pragmatically if a bit paternalistically,

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. And I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read.

Hill was convicted of the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son, on very circumstantial evidence, and executed by firing squad. But his influence on radical labor culture lives on — even, apparently, in the city that killed him. Below I share a couple of his classic songs, but first, his last wishes:

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.