A century and more

I did not remember it or remark on it, but 19 November 2015 marked 100 years since the execution of Joe Hill.

The story of Joe Hill is short, and bitter. He was born in Sweden, and managed to survive tuberculosis. He left his home country for the USA, where he drifted to the west coast.  By age 30 he was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, a pro-union international political movement begun in Chicago.

On 10 Jan 1914 Joe Hill visited a doctor with a gunshot wound, one of five people in the city of Salt Lake City to be treated for a gunshot wounds that night. Also on that night, a store owner and his son were shot dead. Despite having no motive or connection to the murder, Hill was convicted and eventually executed, 19 November 1915, by firing squad despite calls for clemency and intervention by the US President and other officials. The trial has since been examined and is considered a miscarriage justice, but so far as I know has not formally been vacated.

Mr Hill may have been organizing labour unions in the copper mines; he was working as a labourer at the Silver King Mine near Salt Lake City at the time. But he was also a songwriter, and many of his anthems have become standards. His poetry and writings may not always have been of the highest literary quality, but they have endured. One I find irritatingly memorable (EAR WORM!) is The Preacher and the Slave:

(Tune: “Sweet Bye and Bye“)

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:


You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

And the starvation army they play,
And they sing and they clap and they pray.
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:

Holy Rollers and jumpers come out,
And they holler, they jump and they shout.
“Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
“He will cure all diseases today.”

If you fight hard for children and wife—
Try to get something good in this life—
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight:
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:


You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

Utah Philips does a nice version of the song, although a lot more hillbilly than I expect Joe’s own version would have been.