"I NEVER DIED. . ."
The Words, Music and Influence of Joe Hill
By Mary Killebrew
The music of Joe Hill was a uniting force that captured the spirit of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor movement.
Although he never electronically recorded his songs, Hill's music was passed from voice-to-voice across the American landscape with certain songs emerging as anthems for struggling bands of men and women seeking to redefine opportunity in this nation at the turn of the last century.
Modern students of music history have identified Hill as one the most influential protest artists in American history, an influence that can be heard in the work of songwriters as diverse as Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.
As a young boy in Sweden, Hill found comfort in music from the hardships of life and work. Forced to work at the age of 8 after his father's death, Hill could never afford music lessons. On his own Hill learned to play the violin, work a piano, and pick out tunes on a guitar. After emigrating to the United States in 1905 he wrote songs and poems he called "scribbles" that were based on his travels around the country. Leading a rootless existence, Hill worked at dozens of odd jobs in fields, mines and docks. More importantly, he came to know the poor who toiled in dangerous mining and agricultural jobs for low pay.
Hill's firsthand experience with working conditions led him to membership in the I.W.W. in 1910. Almost at once he started writing songs to unite a working class that was fractured into ineffective pieces due to language and cultural differences. Using the music of popular hymns and tunes, Hill added lyrics that soon were sweeping through labor picket lines throughout the nation. Hill's 1910 song, "Workers of the World" was a call to action:
"Workers of the world awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights.
All the wealth you make is taken, by exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission from your cradle to your grave.
Is the height of your ambition to be a good and willing slave?"
"It's not great poetry and that may not be great art," explains Weber State University Professor and Hill researcher John Sillito, "but it pretty well gives you the ideological version of the I.W.W's account of early twentieth century corporate capitalism."
Musicologist and author Wayne Hampton elevated Hill's contributions to a higher plain in a 1986 analysis of the power of social commentary from songwriters. Citing Joe Hill as the most important protest songwriter in the history of the American labor movement, Hampton ranked Hill with former Beatle John Lennon, depression-era troubadour Woody Guthrie and the early-1960s manifestation of Bob Dylan as the four most powerful "Guerilla Minstrels" of 20th century music.
"A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once," Hill once wrote to a friend. "But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. And I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read." The simple and direct nature of Hill's songs helped them spread through homes, union halls, street meetings and jails. When the IWW published its Little Red Song Book containing a collection of the most popular music to carry forth their efforts to unionize the lower classes, Hill's songs were prominently featured. Within months the words and music of Joe Hill were traveling throughout the county in the overall pockets of thousands of workers.
Hill's parodies most frequently targeted bad or dangerous working conditions, and the inequities of management exploiting workers. But he also could be a fierce critic of a broader range of powerful elites. He caustically targeted religious institutions that he viewed as deliberately controlling the poor for the benefit of the rich. His song "The Preacher and the Slave" directly targets the "starvation army" and "Holy Rollers and Jumpers" who promise "you'll get pie in the sky when you die." Throughout the loosely formed body of his work, Hill urged immigrants and the working poor to follow their personal sense of social and economic justice, and resist the orders of the powerful to mind their manners and toe a clearly mandated line.
Similar themes have appeared in the work of other songwriters who have expressed a strong social conscience. Hill's influence is heard in the "everyman" songs of Woody Guthrie. Emerging from the crushing impacts of the Depression, Guthrie urged Americans to take back their country from controlling special interests. Songs such as "Union Maid" and "You Gotta Go Down and Join the Union" in the 1940s are indicative of a belief shared by Guthrie and Joe Hill that the redemption of the nation would be found in the "little guys" sticking together against powerful elites.
Surprising to some are the many parallels found between the words and themes of Joe Hill at the turn of the century, and a songwriter half a world and fifty years removed. John Lennon lashed out at the controlling forces of religious institutions in "I Found Out."
"Old Hare Krishna got nothing on you.
Just keep you crazy with nothing to do;
Keep you occupied with pie in the sky,
There ain't no guru who can see through your eyes"
The song, from Lennon's 1970 initial solo recording apart from the Beatles, not only echoes Hill's sentiments in "The Preacher and the Slave," but directly replicates the provocative line of religious figures offering "pie in the sky." Traces of Hill can also be found in Lennon's evocative challenge to expectations and external controls that limit the individual, "Imagine," and in the rhythmic, anthem-like "Give Peace a Chance."
Joe Hill set the passion of idealism and rebellion to music. His work laid a foundation for generations of future activists who would seek to express political, social and/or economic vision for change in song. Recognition of that legacy came at Woodstock in 1969 through the voice of another widely recognized singer/songwriter. Joan Baez stepped to center stage to sing to an audience estimated at three hundred thousand, and arguably focused on the controversial war still raging in Vietnam on that summer evening. Rather than sing directly to the war, Baez offered a song about an individual, his spirit and his determination to speak out. The song was poet Alfred Hayes' "I Dreamed I Saw 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,' said he.
‘I never died,' said he."