That powerful ballad, written in 1925 by the poet Alfred Hays, was heard again and again during the great demonstrations of the 1960’s. Chances are that not one in ten of the people singing it knew who Joe Hill was, and yet there was that oddly potent name reverberating through the streets of America more than a half century after the man who bore it was executed by a Utah firing squad.
Joe Hill was the foremost songwriter of the Industrial Workers of the World. The I.W.W. was a singing union. From its inception in 1905 this revolutionary organization had to compete with Salvation Army street bands for the attention of the disaffected and migratory workers it sought to recruit. The songs—for the most part new words to the popular tunes of the day—were published in the Little Red Song Book , which by 1913 was being printed in runs of fifty thousand. The Wobblies were never short of songwriters, but as one of them said, “The minute [Joe Hill] appeared with his first, and then his second song, we all knew he was the great one.”
Hill pretty much stepped out of the mists, and we don’t know much about his life. He was born in 1879 to a large, poor, God-fearing family in Gävle, Sweden, and christened Joel Hagglund. He came to America in igoa and drifted about from job to job, traveling west from New York City. He saw enough on the road to convince him that the capitalist system was evil, and he probably joined the Wobblies sometime in 1910. The next year the first and most famous of his songs appeared in the Little Red Song Book . Called “The Preacher and the Slave,” it was set to the tune of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye”:
The song was phenomenally successful; within the year it was being sung in hobo jungles, migrant workers’ camps, and jails across the nation. Hill followed it up with a score of others; harsh and vernacular, full of gritty humor and simple Marxism, they could be heard wherever Wobblies congregated.
Hill quickly became a popular hero, although, in an organization that stressed camaraderie and brotherhood, the man himself stood oddly apart. He was not much of an orator, and he liked to keep to himself. He was clean and well groomed, never smoked or drank, treated women with taciturn courtesy, and apparently never had a girl of his own. In a time of almost unremitting labor violence, nobody ever saw him in a fight.
By the winter of 1913 Hill was staying with Swedish friends in Salt Lake City. On the evening of January 10, 1914, he left his friends’ home and returned the next morning with a bullet wound in his chest. During the time he was out, two men had entered the store of J. B. Morrison, a local grocer, and held him up. In the gunfight that followed, Morrison and his son were shot dead. Hill was arrested and charged with the murders.
He was held for five months prior to his trial. During those months the I.W.W. ’s favorite troubadour began to undergo the transition from itinerant songwriter to labor martyr. The trial was a sad, confused affair of contradictions and cloudy evidence. None of the witnesses could identify Hill, and there is evidence that the police did not follow up leads to other suspects once they had him. On the other hand, Hill was surly and uncooperative and, in a moment of anger, dismissed his lawyers. He swore innocence but would not explain his gunshot wound beyond a foggy story about getting in a squabble with somebody over a woman. After ten days of testimony he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Hill appealed the decision, and the I.W.W. began to raise funds for his defense, despite his protests that the money could be better spent elsewhere. In July of 1915 the Utah Supreme Court turned down the appeal; in the next few days over ten thousand letters of protest came into the state capitol.
In September the board of pardons met, but Hill stuck to his feeble story. The board denied a stay of execution. There were protest rallies throughout the country. Among those who begged for Joe Hill’s life were such diverse people as Samuel Gompers, Helen Keller, Virginia Snow Stephen, daughter of the president of the Mormon Church, and the Swedish minister to the United States. President Woodrow Wilson twice wired Utah Governor William Spry asking for a reconsideration of Hill’s sentence.
During this Joe Hill sat in his cell writing songs and corresponding with his union friends. He had no wish to die a martyr, but he seems to have realized that he was now worth more to the movement dead than alive, and his letters are full of a steady and cheerful courage.
Governor Spry didn’t like being pushed around. He replied firmly to Wilson’s second telegram. Nothing was going to save Joe Hill.
On November 18, 1915, Hill sent a telegram to “Big Bill” Haywood, the general secretary of the I.W.W. : “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”
The next morning they took him out to the prison yard, strapped him to a chair in front of a five-man firing squad, and pinned a paper target to his heart.
The deputy commanding the firing squad called “Ready, aim!”
Hill grinned beneath his blindfold. “Fire—go on and fire,” he shouted, and they shot him.
The night before, Hill had written a final poem in his cell. He called it his “Last Will.” It does not have the sting of his labor songs or the thunder of Hays’s ballad, but it does have a power of its own: