Born Joel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden on October 7th 1879, after emigrating, he learned English during the early 1900s, when itinerant, working at various jobs across the United States, frequently unemployed. He became a troubadour, performer and labour movement activist, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who were also known as the “Wobblies”. He adopted the name Joseph Hillstrom to avoid blacklisting.
He became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the IWW. His most famous songs include “The Tramp”, “Mr Block”, “There is Power in a Union”, “The Rebel Girl” and “Casey Jones—the Union Scab”. In “The Preacher and the Slave”, he coined the phrase ‘pie in the sky’, His songs evoke and highlight the harsh, combative life led by itinerant workers. The songs call for workers to organise their efforts to improve working conditions. His protest music has influenced Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine.
“I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” was written in the 1930s by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson. When the African American singer Paul Robeson sang to the Sydney Opera House workers in 1960, he explained that Hill’s “spirit still lived in the hearts of all American working people”:
‘From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill –
Where working men defend their rights
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.’
In 1914, John Morrison, a Salt Lake City grocer and former policeman, and his teenage son Arling were shot and killed in the family store. This was Utah, copper country and Mormon territory. That same evening, Joe arrived at a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound, mentioning a fight over a woman. Joe refused to explain further, even after he was accused of the grocery store murders because of his injury. He had no connection to Morrison: there was no motive to explain him committing the crime.
William M. Adler’s 2011 biography of Joe Hill reveals new information about his alibi, which was never introduced at his trial. According to Adler, Hill and his friend and countryman, Otto Appelquist, were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. In a recently discovered letter, Erickson confirmed her relationship with the two men and the rivalry between them. The letter indicates that when she first discovered Hill was injured, he explained to her that Appelquist had shot him, apparently out of jealousy. The vicissitudes of Tommy Sheridan seem mundane by comparison.
Thus framed, Joe Hill was convicted of the murders of the Morrisons in a controversial (show-)trial. There followed unsuccessful appeals, political debates and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and many workers’ organisations.
Joe Hill was executed by firing squad in Utah on November 19th 1915.
Joe has been immortalised in several folk songs: his life and death have inspired campaigns, film, music, books and poetry.
Hellraisers Journal: Salt Lake County Sheriff Continues Preparations for Executiion.
‘Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize.’
The legacy of Joe Hill