A slim, battered volume in our folk section caught my eye recently. This interest ramped up when I read the following down the long edge of the front cover:

Originally published on the 40th anniversary of his murder at the hands of the authorities on November 19, 1915.

OK… that was the hook. So who exactly was Joe Hill? And why did he merit publication by the radical American folk imprint, Oak Publications? Read on to discover what I found.

Songs of Joe Hill – edited by Barrie Stavis and Frank Harmon (reprinted 1967)

Joe Hill (originally Joel Emmanuel Hägglund) was a Swedish immigrant working casual jobs across the United States at the start of the twentieth century. At the mercy of his many employers, Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1910. The IWW was a radical union that proposed to represent all workers in the US, regardless of occupation or trade. This is how the Foreword of our little book describes Hill:

In 1901 this young Swede emigrated to the United States. He stayed on the Eastern seaboard… picking up whatever odd jobs he could find, including cleaning spittoons and ‘rattling the music box’ (playing piano) in a Bowery saloon. [Later, moving West], he worked in the wheat fields; he mined copper and smeltered it; he worked on the docks of California, a dock-walloper; and sometimes he shipped out as a sailor on the Honolulu run. And he was always writing songs and poems.

He was an active member of the union, often to be found trying to persuade other workers to organise. Another way he contributed was to write songs and verse. Many of them appeared in numerous editions of the IWW’s own song book entitled Songs to fan the flames of discontent.

IWW songs
A later edition of the song book (photo, Hunter Gray via Wikipedia) Used by permission CC BY-SA 3.0

The Rebel Girl 

Cover of ‘The Rebel Girl’ – inspired by IWW activist Elizabeth Gurly Flynn (via Wikipedia)

This is one of Hill’s best known songs. The inspiration for it came from Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, a fellow member of the IWW, feminist, and co-founder of the ACLU. At the end of his life, Hill wrote the following to Flynn:

… you have been more to me than a Fellow Worker. You have been an inspiration and when I composed The Rebel Girl you was right there and helped me all the time. 

The song is marked ‘lively’ and definitely comes across as rousing. Here’s part of the text:

Yes, her hands may be harden’d from labor And her dress may not be very fine; But a heart in her bosom is beating that is true to her class and her kind. … For the only and Thoroughbred Lady is the Rebel Girl.

John Golden and the Lawrence strike

The strike in question happened in 1912 at one of the many New England cotton and woollen mills.  Increased mechanisation, deskilling, and large scale layoffs led to a volatile situation in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The workforce was largely female and represented about 40 nationalities. As the note to the song puts it:

This situation of language and custom barrier was used by all the mill owners in their deliberate policy of pitting one group of foreigners against another. … The mill owners thought that the strike would be rapidly broken, and in this they would be aided by John Golden, said to be a most venial labor leader.

Representatives from the IWW succeeded in unionising the workforce where the more traditional labour organisations failed or didn’t bother. And song was part of the glue holding them together.  A journalist at the time, Ray Stannard Baker, made this comment:

This movement in Lawrence was strangely a singing movement. It is the first strike I ever saw that sang. I shall not soon forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire, of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song.

Hill uses a limited range in the song and the rhythm is four-square, yet it is a stirring anthem. Here’s the final chorus, thumbing its nose at Golden:

That’s one time Golden did not make it right, all right; In spite of all his schemes the strikers won the fight. When all the workers stand united hand in hand, The world with all its wealth will be at their command.

No recording unfortunately, but here’s a short video with images from the period.

The Tramp

Here is the final song which I imagine, meant a lot to Hill. In this context, ‘to tramp’ was to travel in search of work, something he spent most of his life doing. It’s set to the Civil War era tune ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching.’

At the close…

Posthumous publication of a cartoon by Hill in 1919. (Public domain)

One night in January 1914, Hill presented himself to a doctor with a gunshot wound. On the same night, a murder took place in the same locality, also involving a firearm. By a roundabout route, Hill ended up being charged with the murder. He was found guilty despite the lack of evidence and a motive, and was executed by firing squad in November 1915.