Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Last Words: Joe Hill


“Fire!”

- Joe Hill (1879-1915), labour activist executed by firing squad for murder. Hill shouted the above word after the firing squad received the commands “Ready…aim…”

If any readers have seen the videos of Woodstock, they may recall Joan Baez singing a song entitled “Joe Hill”.

The person she was singing about, and the speaker of the above last words, or word to be precise, was a Swedish-American labour organiser and activist with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a songwriter and a poet. His songs and poems reflected his activist pursuits.

Joe Hill was an itinerant worker, who moved around the west, hopping freight trains, going from job to job. In a highly questionable trial and with scanty, suspect evidence, Hill was convicted in Utah of the shooting murder of an ex-police officer and was sentenced to death. There is a belief that at the time of the shooting Hill was in bed with a married woman and that he refused to name her to protect her reputation. Analysts and commentators have since labelled the trial and subsequent events a miscarriage of justice. Many people at the time, including Hill and his lawyer, were convinced that it was Hill’s association with the IWW which secured the conviction, not the evidence. An appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful, as were appeals for clemency by the public, including Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. In a last letter to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, he wrote “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organise... 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.”


The video of Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill” at Woodstock is at:

The lyrics are:
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
And standing there as big as life
and smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe What they can never kill
went on to organise,
went on to organise
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.

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