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Joe Hill

Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund, and also known as Joe Hillstrom (October 7, 1879 - November 19, 1915) was an American labor activist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. He was executed for murder after a controversial trial, and after his death became the subject of a folksong.

Hill was born in Gävle, Sweden, a town north of Stockholm. He emigrated to the United States in 1902, where he became a migrant laborer, moving from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually to the West Coast. He was in San Francisco, California, when the earthquake struck it in 1906. Hill joined the Wobblies around 1910, when he was working on the docks in San Pedro, California.

Hill rose in the I.W.W. organization and travelled widely organizing workers under the I.W.W. banner, writing political songs and satirical poems, and making speeches. He coined the phrase "pie in the sky" which appeared in his song "The Preacher and the Slave" (a parody of the then well known hymn "In the Sweet Bye and Bye"):

You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray,
Live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.

On January 10, 1914, John G. Morrison, a grocer, and his son Arling were murdered in Salt Lake City, Utah by two armed robbers masked by red bandannas. On the same evening, Joe Hill appeared on the footsteps of a local doctor with a bullet wound. Hill said that he had been wounded in an argument with a friend. The doctor noticed that Hill was armed with a pistol.

Hill was arrested for Morrison's murder. A red bandanna was found in Hill's rooms. The pistol Hill had when he was at the doctor was not found. Hill resolutely denied that he was involved in the robbery and murder of Morrison, but he refused to testify at his trial, and was convicted of murder. An appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful, and it is uncertain whether appeals for mercy organized by the I.W.W. did his case any good. Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. His last words, to his supporters, were "Don't mourn for me. Organize!"

Joe Hill is remembered for his devotion to union organizing and his many clever song lyrics, some of which continue to be sung.

Hill is also remembered from a tribute song written about him after his death by Alfred Hayes entitled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", although sometimes referred to simply as "Joe Hill". The lyrics to this 1925 song are:

Joe Hill's corpse after his execution by a Utah firing squad

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.

"In Salt Lake, Joe," says I to him,
him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."

"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"

And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe "What they can never kill
went on to organize,
went on to organize"

From San Diego up to Maine,
in every mine and mill,
where working-men defend their rights,
it's there you find Joe Hill,
it's there you find Joe Hill!

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I "But Joe, you're ten years dead"
"I never died" said he,
"I never died" said he.

Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger often performed this song and are associated with it. But the best known performance and recording of "Joe Hill" was done by Joan Baez at Woodstock in 1969.

External link:

I.W.W. tribute page to Joe Hill