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I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died” says he.
“I never died” says 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”

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side,
Joe Hill is at their side.”

“From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill,
Where workers strike and organize,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill,”
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.
“I never died,” says he.

I could write about Joe Hill entirely using the words of songs. Above are the words written by Alfred Hayes, which were set to music by Earl Robinson. I could quote Utah Phillips, as I often do, to recover labor’s history. I could page through the Little Red Songbook for the words that Joe himself wrote.

But the long and the short of it is this. Born in Sweden in 1879, Joe Hill migrated to the United States in 1902, and had joined the IWW [the IWW constitution, from 1905, begins with, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.”] by 1910. Along with the likes of Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, Joe Hill traveled, worked, and organized. His specialty was songs, often setting new words to popular melodies. We remember, for example, “The Preacher & the Slave,” set to the tune of “In the Sweet By-and-By,” in which Bible-thumping religious types such as the Salvation Army would only promise “pie in the sky when you die” while offering no help to the destitute in this life, as opposed to the Wobblies’ more immediate form of salvation through material changes here on earth. In 1915 he was convicted of murder in a sham trial in Utah.  As his lawyer said, “The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty.” Despite intervention from Swedish dignitaries, Helen Keller, labor rank & file, and President Wilson, the conviction and sentence stuck.

Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915.

The day before, he telegrammed Haywood, saying, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize. […] 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.” — a joke that Utah Phillips would repeat for many years. He wrote, too, his last will, in verse.

My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan,
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”

My body? Oh, if I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow,
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and final Will.
Good Luck to All of you,
Joe Hill

In the end, his body was cremated, and his ashes sent to hundreds of comrades around the world to be scattered or kept. I imagine parts stayed in Utah, but there are also parts in his native Sweden, in Nicaragua, swallowed by Billy Bragg, and, as late as 1990, sifted into a bonfire in Michigan.

Joe Hill was not the only one murdered by the state or by vigilantes during the early 20th century labor movement. Frank Little was hanged from a railroad trestle in Montana by jingoists during WWI. In Everett, WA, five Wobblies were killed by sheriff’s men in 1916. At the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914, workers were shot and their families burned to death by the National Guard and Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company.

We can see there the alliance of state and capital, much as we can see the continuation of that alliance in our own time. They rarely kill us any more, at least not outright. The neoliberal tactics deployed by state and capital in the early 21st century rely more on structural violence than the personal violence of a century ago — but the bodies still pile up, whether in jail, of depression and stress, of environmental degradation, or from lack of access to healthcare.

And we find ourselves fighting the same fights — wages, hours, and conditions, of course. That is, we still find ourselves wishing to be able to determine the courses of our own lives; to be able to work to live, rather than live to work; and for our rightful shares in the wealth of humanity that we have created through our work.

A hundred years on, and still not dead. Anyway, here’s Utah Phillips.

 

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About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

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This entry was posted on November 19, 2015 by in Capitalism, History, Labor, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .

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