‘Joe Hill’ by Ralph Chaplin from Labor Defender. Vol. 10 No. 11. November, 1926.

Faces of Comrades Past. Wobbly mourners at Joe Hill’s Thanksgiving Day funeral in Chicago, 1915. Ralph Chaplin, second from right.

Ralph Chaplin, Joe Hill’s old friend and comrade, looks back on his life with this touching brief biography of his fellow wobbly.

‘Joe Hill’ by Ralph Chaplin from Labor Defender. Vol. 10 No. 11. November, 1926.

JOSEPH HILLSTROM, or Joe Hill as he is more commonly known, probably came about as close to being the Laureate of Labor as any poet the working class movement has yet produced. He had the common touch combined with the true singing instinct, he had common sense and vision and was a fighter in the spirit most admired by the rank and file. Joe Hill was not troubled with the qualms and foibles of the parlor high brow. He came right out of the heart of the working class. His life had been hard, that of the migratory worker or unskilled slave of modern industrialism. His chief virtue lies in the fact that his songs reflected faithfully the proletarian environment that surrounded him from the day he was born until the day he died.

A young Joseph Hillstrom.

Joe Hill’s story is full of the color, romance and adventure of proletarian life. From the time he landed in New York, a raw emigrant boy from Sweden, until the moment he gave the order for the firing squad at the Salt Lake penitentiary to riddle his young breast with bullets, his life and spirit were true to form as far as the revolutionary working class movement is concerned. He was a rebel against the system of exploitation and misery which is known as Capitalism. His songs and poems were born out of the sweat and anguish and uncertainty of his daily life on the high seas, the longshore, or in the harvest fields, the woods or mines ashore.

Joe Hill learned to speak English while working as a sailor on the ships plying between Sweden and England. In his own country he had worked on the railroads and at odd jobs. No doubt he came to America- the land of opportunity- like thousands of other young foreigners, filled with the ambition to make his way and find “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Whatever his dreams were, they were rudely dispelled by harsh reality as soon as he started out to find a master in the mighty eastern metropolis. Polishing cuspidors in a Bowery saloon seems to have been his first experience.

Joe Hill evidently didn’t like New York so well and so after a month or so of this he came on to Chicago where he tried to find his vision in a big machine shop. Joe Hill clung to this job desperately, waiting no doubt for the manifold blessings of Democracy to manifest themselves, but he was again disappointed. At this stage Joe might possibly have become a skilled union mechanic or might have drifted into the building trades and become a neatly dressed Swede carpenter with red hands and naive blue eyes full of dreams and puzzlement. He might have acquired a home and a flivver and a family of tow-headed, red cheeked Americans. But fate, it seems, had decreed otherwise. Joe went west, working his way in the harvest fields and construction camps, learning from actual experience what the machine process means for the workingman in America.

Just what happened to Joe Hill on his way to California, history has failed to record. But he had been doing a lot of thinking and no doubt reading also. By the time he reached the west coast he was familiar with Marxian economics and the technique of agitation. He had learned the great lesson of the need for working class organization. He was a member of the I.W.W. This was when Joe Hill first started to sing. After “Casey Jones,” written during the big S.P. strike, song after song came from his pen in rapid succession, each one more popular than the last. Joe had become a typical western “stiff,” living in jungles, shack, houseboat or mission between jobs, and writing and singing the songs that have since become famous all over the world.

Joe Hill lived in California a long time making a precarious living for himself and devoting his talent and energy to the task of building up the One Big Union of the workers of the world in which he so ardently believed. But finally the urge came over him again to return to the East and revisit some of the scenes of his earlier experiences in the class struggle. Rumor has it also that there was a girl in the case; but this is apocryphal. He went to Salt Lake City and found work at Bingham. Here he proceeded as usual to organize the workers. This was the beginning of the end. What happened to Mooney, Cline, Sacco, Vanzetti and a host of others happened to Joe Hill. He was charged (of all things!) with murder. He was tried, convicted and in due time shot to death by a firing squad in the penitentiary at Salt Lake. He continued to write songs and poems almost to the moment of his execution.

Hill’s funeral.

His body was shipped to Chicago where he was cremated in order that his ashes might be strewn to the winds as he had wished. His funeral, attended by tens of thousands of his fellow workers, was one of the largest and most picturesque ever held in Chicago. His song, “Workers of the World Awaken,” words and music composed in prison, is perhaps one of the best examples of his art.

Workers of the world, awaken!
Break your chains, demand your
All the wealth YOU make is taken
By exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission?
From your cradles to your graves?
Is the height of your ambition,
To be good and willing slaves?

Labor Defender was published monthly from 1926 until 1937 by the International Labor Defense (ILD), a Workers Party of America, and later Communist Party-led, non-partisan defense organization founded by James Cannon and William Haywood while in Moscow, 1925 to support prisoners of the class war, victims of racism and imperialism, and the struggle against fascism. It included, poetry, letters from prisoners, and was heavily illustrated with photos, images, and cartoons. Labor Defender was the central organ of the Scottsboro and Sacco and Vanzetti defense campaigns. Editors included T. J. O’ Flaherty, Max Shactman, Karl Reeve, J. Louis Engdahl, William L. Patterson, Sasha Small, and Sender Garlin.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/labordefender/1926/v01n11-nov-1926-LD.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s