Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Joan Baez, Paul Robeson: Joe Hill

SONG Joe Hill

SONGWRITERS Alfred Hayes (words) and Earl Robinson (music)

PERFORMERS Joan Baez, Paul Robeson, others

APPEARS ON From Every Stage, Woodstock: Music From The Original Soundtrack and More (Baez); Live at Carnegie Hall (Robeson)

Although popularized by Joan Baez' performance in the 1970 film Woodstock, this labor ballad traces its pedigree back to a 1930 poem by the British writer Alfred Hayes called "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." (Some accounts have Hayes writing the poem in 1925.) In 1936, Seattle composer Earl Robinson set the poem to music; since then, various artists have performed the song as an inspiration for organizing labor and other community movements. In addition to Baez, singers of Joe Hill include Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. In 1958, Robeson performed what must have been the definitive version for an earlier generation at his Carnegie Hall concert. "Joe Hill" remains a staple of Baez' concerts to this day.

The song's unlikely subject was born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in Sweden sometime between 1879 and 1882. Hagglun emigrated to the United States in 1902 and began traveling the American west as a migrant laborer. Somewhere along the line, Hagglund became known as Joseph Hillstrom, a name perhaps inevitably shortened to Joe Hill. Hill joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies") in 1910, gaining prominence as an organizer and writer of labor songs.

In early 1914, Hill arrived in Park City, Utah, having found work there as a silver miner. Shortly after Hill's arrival in Park City, masked robbers murdered a Salt Lake City butcher and his son in the family shop. During the robbery, the butcher returned fire and wounded one of the robbers. Shortly after, Hill appeared in at local doctor's office with a bullet wound. Although he denied robbing the butcher -- and rudimentary forensic evidence supported his claim -- Hill was nonetheless arrested and tried for murder. Hill's efforts to keep the IWW out of his trial failed, and it is thought today that his membership in the radical labor organization was the key factor in the guilty verdict brought against him. A Utah firing squad executed Hill on November 19, 1915. (Complete Wikipedia article here.)

Shortly before his death, Hill sent the following message to IWW leader Bill Haywood:
Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. 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.
"Joe Hill" has been performed around the world in over a dozen languages. Of the two versions presented here, Baez' version shows "Joe Hill" in its folk roots and -- through Robeson's more classically oriented rendition -- the extent to which the song has been adapted. Earl Robinson had this to say about "Joe Hill":
"Joe Hill" was written in Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 in New York State, for a campfire program celebrating him and his songs, "Casey Jones," "Pie in the Sky" and others. Before the end of that summer we were hearing of performances in a New Orleans Labor Council, a San Francisco picket line, and it was taken to Spain by the members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to help in the fight against Franco. It has travelled around the world since like a folk song, been translated into twelve or fifteen languages. Joan Baez' singing of the song at Woodstock brought it to popular attention, but I still get asked the question, "Did you write 'Joe Hill'?" [More here and here.]

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.

"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"

"In Salt Lake City, Joe," says I,
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."

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.

Joe Hill - Paul Robeson Jr.;Lawrence Brown


  1. Thanks for linking me to this K. I heard Joan sing this on the grounds of the Washington Monument in 1970, I think, when the DAR canceled her show at Constitution Hall because of her tax protest against Vietnam. I talked with Daniel Schorr there, who was at that time on Nixon's infamous enemies list.

  2. We saw her sing this last fall. She can still bring it, even if her voice has lowered and become a bit weathered. It was one of my favorite shows of last year.

  3. When Paul Robeson visited Sydney during the construction of the Sydney Opera House (early 1970s) he gave a lunchtime recital to the workers and sang "Joe Hill" surrounded by men in hard hats, girders and cranes. The ABC has film of this stirring performance and I have been blessed to see it. I have a sticker on the back of my motor cycle that proclaims; "Joe Hill Lives"

  4. Joe Hill is a utopian pipe dream of Collectivists. Long before the leftist celebrity Joan Baez adopted this pipe dream, labor unions had a virtuous purpose of stopping widespread labor abuses of child labor and absurdly dangerous working conditions. Labor unions have long since become a vehicle for organized crime and political corruption. As for the real life Joe Hill, with the Americanized name, no one except those who were a part of his trial know whether he was truly guilty or innocent of murder. There is a researcher who says he was probably guilty. I certainly don't know, and neither does the bigoted Joan Baez. Joan Baez is a talented entertainer, but, on political issues and human behavior, she is wrong as much or more than she is right. Social justice is a euphemism for economic Marxism. The farce of Class identity politics is as bigoted as ever, except the proud faces of this hypocrisy have changed.