JOE HILL by Len Wallace
The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon,
by William M. Adler, Bloomsbury, New York, 2011-11-09, ISBN-13: 978-1-59691-696-8
ISBN-10: 1-59691-696-6 435 pages
When internationally renowned writers Victor Hugo and Emile Zola died thousands of workers marched in their funeral cortege. In November 1915 some 30,000 people gathered in Chicago to honour working class artist and rebel, Joe Hill. . In the pantheon of international labour heroes Joe Hill figures most prominently. Many of his songs considered a part of the American folk music heritage. Although they were written for a different era his songs continue to be sung on picket lines, recorded and reprinted in songbooks.
Since his execution Joe Hill's life story has been shrouded in myth and patchwork presentations with an overabundance of historical inaccuracies as well as cynical conjecture to both his character and of the revolutionary union to which he was a member. In his groundbreaking work (Joe Hill, The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture, Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago, 2003) Franklin Rosemont decisively dismantled the often poor research focussing his attention on Hill as a working class artist (songwriter, cartoonist, poet) and activist within a continent wide revolutionary movement and upsurge of significant proportions. Previously little known aspects of Hill's life were revealed.
William Adler continues to fill in the missing gaps and details of Joe Hill's life from his youth in Sweden becoming a labourer by the age of ten, his sojourns across the United States into Mexico and Canada to the intriguing details of the judicial battles following his arrest for allegedly murdering a store owner. Adler fleshes out the events in Hill's life by portraying the grim realities of life for the industrial working class in the U.S. where workers were too often treated as expendable beasts and those who protested and organised against such conditions were painted as naive idealists at best or, more often, as bloodthirsty vermin by the alliance of politicians, employers and journalists. The class war was often brutal and violent.
Adler teases out intriguing details about Joe Hill's life providing a better understanding of his character and the development of his artistry and political beliefs. The myth is that Hill became a prolific songwriter of songs meant to "fan the flames of discontent" inspired by the work of the Wobblies. One of Hill's most famous songs, "The Preacher and the Slave", written to the tune of a religious hymn with its barbed lyrics aimed at religious "holy rollers" and the Salvation Army is assumed to have been written solely on the basis of the street corner competition between the radical union and the revivalists for the hearts and minds of the working class. Adler points out that Hill was already writing humorous jingles to religious tunes many years prior to his emigration and would have already been very well acquainted with the work of the Salvation Army in his home town of Gävle. Hill's dismissive attitudes to religion may well have been part of the Swedish industrial working class reaction to the conservatism of Sweden's state church while even though that country's working class organisations themselves developed in part from the social gospel. While Hill poked fun at what the Wobblies referred to "sky pilots" he was not adverse to befriending and working alongside the minister of the non-denominational Swedish seaman's hall where he composed many of his songs. Song writing, according to those who knew Hill, did not come easily to him.
An entire chapter of the book is devoted to Hill's excursion into the 1911 armed struggle of the insurgent libertarian commune in northern Mexico inspired by the Flores Magon brothers. This little known chapter of Wobbly history, according to Adler, had a transformative effect on Hill turning him into the hardened believer visualising the struggle between labour and capital as a universal class war. Adler's research further shows that, despite the condemnation hurled by some socialists of the day that Wobblies were anti-political, organisation purely anarcho-syndicalist, Hill considered himself to be a socialist and "strong disciple" of Karl Marx.
Tracing Hill's footsteps after fighting under the red banner of "Tierra y Libertad" Adler follows Hill's participation in California's Free Speech fights in which Hill acted as much more than a bard for the union's cause. Despite Hill's normally taciturn nature he became a spokesperson, activist and organiser with delegated responsibility for several organisations. A wealth of material is presented in this important chapter of not only North American working class history as part of the struggle for elemental democratic rights often taken for granted today. The street corners of cities were the literal battlegrounds for the workers' right to organise and communicate. Adler paints the picture of working class organisations confronted and violently attacked by the unspoken cabal of politicians, state authorities, police, employers and accusatory journalists.
The long standing claim of the IWW that Hill was framed and murdered is most likely true as Adler reviews Hill's capture, trial and sentencing for the murder of a store owner for which there was neither evidence, eyewitness or motive. The trial of the state of Utah versus Joe Hill can only be understood as part of the war of extermination upon the IWW. Joe Hill's guilt was that he carried the union's red membership card. On one side Joe Hill symbolised the undesirable in a class war, an immigrant worker who believed in the abolition of capitalism. On the other side stood the defenders of law, order, state and property who looked upon the Wobblies as a swarm of destructive locusts, bomb throwers, foreigners and parasitic miscreants out to destroy all that was considered sacrosanct.
Hill, as it is well known, maintained his innocence and refused to take the stand in his own defence. He claimed that on the fateful day of the shooting he himself was shot by an acquaintance over an argument concerning a woman. Adler asks the perennial question why Hill did not attempt to save his own life by revealing the names of those who could exonerate him of the wrongdoing.
Trying to account for Hill's intransigence by reconstructing the trial, reviewing the remaining documents, personal letters and interviews, Adler is force into conjecture. The fact remained that according to the laws of the land Hill did not have to prove his innocence. The state had to prove his guilt. Hill obviously knew that the IWW could use his trial as a way to promote its own cause and certainly agreed to it. He could accept his execution because his death would reveal the hypocrisy of the state, provide his life with a meaning. He would not die in obscurity as a poor, unknown, itinerant immigrant worker as so many other millions of working men and women. He could die as the universal rebel worker, his name inseparable from the unique militant unionism he embraced.
In his last testament Hill requested that he be cremated and his ashes spread across the world. That too became a symbolic political act that was to live on almost a century after his death. Hill's ashes were sent in packets to IWW locals across the globe. One small package never reached its destination being confiscated in 1918 by the U.S. Post Office then forwarded to the FBI for safekeeping. In 1986 the package was rediscovered and eventually turned over to the Chicago headquarters of the still surviving IWW.
Adler ends the story with a final ceremonial and scattering of ashes in Chicago, but here he makes a minor error in the account. Almost infinitesimal pinches were also sent to organisations and individuals around the world. One packet was sent to the Toronto, Ontario IWW local. At the volatile Eaton's strike Wobblies stirred Hill's ashes into a bin meant to provide heat. A whiff of this dust was enclosed in a red leather locket inscribed with Joe Hill's words "Don't Mourn - Organise!" and given to me when I performed in concert during a May Day festival.
A year later, performing at Hamilton's Festival of Friends, I was approached by a member of a First Nations drum circle and asked what the locket signified. I told him the story of the rebel martyr. "This", he said, "is very powerful" and asked if he could hold the locket. He recounted the story to the other brothers of the circle and each placed his hand on the shoulder of the other forming a chain to draw upon the power of Joe Hill's spirit. Some 96 years after his execution that spirit apparently lives on.
Len Wallace homepage