“A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”
The quote above is from Joe Hill, not Stephen King’s son who followed in his father’s literary footsteps, but the labor activist from the turn of the 20th century. While born and raised in Sweden, Joseph Hillstrom migrated to the United States at the age of 23 for work. He lived a migrant worker life as he bounced all over the US, and while he never found a permanent home, his trial and tribulations led him to become part of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union that promoted the idea of “One Big Union for All.” The idea was to promote workplace democracy, give ownership rights to workers, and replace competition with cooperation.
Under this union, Joseph shortened his name as he penned his work with the more American moniker “Joe Hill.” While he organized many charters and strikes across the US, Joe is probably most well-known for creating political songs, poems, and cartoons for the working class. The quote introduced in the beginning sums up his philosophies, and it is a line of belief that I have come to understand myself when studying the arts. Passing copies of the Communist Manifesto may have been the best way to educate, but a satire song like ‘The Preacher and The Slave,’ which is a tune composed by Joe Hill, that uses a popular church hymn to explain the false hopes that organized religion perpetrates, is revered. He sang and preached to the masses, hoping his tune and message would inspire, organize, and change, a modern day folk hero to the left.
One would think though that a man who has nothing but the clothes on his back would not be deemed scary to anyone, but Joe Hill and the Wobblies, the name for members of the IWW, represented something very frightening to the politicians, factory owners, or quite simply the people who had everything. This fear became to what we known as the Red Scare, as the world was watching Russia and their revolution, what the bosses feared the most was a worker takeover like the Red Army achieved across the globe. Labor activists and organizers became traitorous scum and were enemies of the American Dream machine, much of the Wobblies became targets of both government and corporate agents, and this activity increased over the years and reached a breaking point during World War I.
Joe Hill sang his song though, and his end ironically was not from his radical union duties, but a dispute over a women that left him with a bullet wound. His reputation though put him in the crosshairs of local authorities in Utah, as he was pinned for the murder of a policeman and his son even though sources at the time indicate he had nothing to do that killing. He was framed, and he knew he couldn’t fight it, so he faced the firing squad. Telling leaders in the IWW not to mourn but organize, he was rebel to the very end. One of his final requests, “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.”
Joe Hill’s end was not in Utah that day though, his body was sent to Chicago and cremated. It was on May 1, 1916, on May Day, his ashes were thrown into the winds, all humble Joe Hill wished was that last of his physical existence would encourage some flowers grow on some desolate country road, but little did he know that he planted the rebellious seeds of future labor activists and artists.