Today was one of those nippy but sunny early spring days (at least here in Sweden) when the brightness of the day made it quite impossible not to be outside, no matter that you needed gloves and three sweaters and thick boots and a warm scarf not to freeze to death.
I did some mild gardening – which essentially means I eyed my roses but decided I dared not prune them yet and instead decimated all the ground elder I could find.
While I worked, I sang. As I was working, it sort of felt natural to sing working songs, which is why I did a rather loud, wordless rendition of the Russian National Anthem (seeing as it used to be the Soviet Union’s national anthem, and we all know just what a workers’ paradise that was, right? No. It wasn’t – see more here. But it is a beautiful, beautiful tune) before moving on to hum “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.” As I only know the chorus, I suppose it became a bit repetitive, and at some point my daughter groaned and wondered what on Earth I was singing.
“That,” I told her while straightening up from my bent over position, “is from The Preacher and the Slave, by Joe Hill.”
I was a tad worried she’d look totally blank – how many have ever heard of Joe Hill? – but my daughter spends a lot of her free time listening to podcasts about diverse historical subjects (I wonder where she gets that from) and so she nodded. “He wrote that?”
“He did. Set it to the tune of a Salvation Army hymn,” I replied. “They didn’t like him much for that.”
Truth is, not all that many did like Joe. At least not among the establishment. The workers he worked so hard to unite probably did like him – or at least respect him. Joe Hill was a man with a fiery dream in his heart, and such men are not always easy to like as they tend to be uncompromising and somewhat patronising towards those that “do not see their own good”.
But let’s start at the beginning, which means we must travel back to 1879 and the little Swedish town of Gävle (or Gefle, as it was spelled then) These days, Gävle is mostly famous for having one of the larger coffee roasteries in Sweden and for having a huge Christmas goat made of straw put up in the central square every year after which everyone makes bets as to if the goat will survive the Christmas season or be burnt to the ground before by pranksters. Quite often, it ends up burnt to the ground… And as to why Swedish people have a huge straw-made goat as a Christmas symbol, let’s just say it harkens back to our pagan roots and leave it at that for now.
In 1879, Gävle was one of the busier towns in Sweden – a place where the timber that was logged further upcountry ended up at any of the various sawmills. It was therefore a town with a large blue-collar population, and it was to one such hard-working family that the stork delivered Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in October of 1879.
The family Hägglund was devout. Both little Joel’s mother Margareta and his father Olof did their best to instil the word of God in their numerous children – all in all, there were nine siblings, of whom six survived childhood. The Hägglund home rang with music: Olof had built an organ, and all the children were taught to play and sing. Soon enough, our musically talented Joel had not only mastered the organ, but also the violin, the accordion, the guitar and the piano.
When Joel was nine, disaster struck. Olof died, and just like that, his children’s future was ripped from them. Joel had to quit school and start working, seeing first hand – I imagine – just how harsh the working reality was for the downtrodden and weak, such as him. Joel’s mother did her best to keep her family together, thereby working herself into an early grave. She died in 1902, and of her surviving children, two decided to leave Sweden behind and make for the United States. The dream of America as the promised land was still going strong at the time, and Joel and brother Paul were probably hoping to make it good in a matter of months, more or less shaking gold nuggets from the trees.
Once in America, Joel changed his first name to Joe. He also learnt English at record speed and was soon so proficient in his new language he could not only deliver speeches but also write lyrics in it. One gets the impression of a man who shed his Swedish identity and embraced that of his adopted country – albeit that Joe quickly realised this new land of his bore little resemblance to paradise. In fact, just like back in Sweden, workers had it tough. Long hours, low pay and – as depicted in that old song Sixteen Tons – an ever-growing debt to the employer for the necessities in life which effectively made the labourer something of an indentured servant: until the debt was repaid, he couldn’t leave, and his pay was too low to ever allow him to repay it…
Our Joe decided it was time someone did something about this. He wasn’t the only one to think so: all over the U.S., workers were uniting and demanding fairer conditions, something that was viewed with grave displeasure by their employers. Joe’s determined efforts to organise his fellow-workers had him fired and blacklisted which is why he took the name Joe Hill and moved to California where he became an active member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
This is when Joe turned his musical talents to supporting the cause. One song after the other was written – including The Preacher and the Slave – all of them with the intention of prodding the downtrodden and illiterate into some sort of action – preferably by becoming a union member. Joe believed in a society that allowed people to earn their living without depending on the charity offered by various organisations such as the Salvation Army. To Joe, it was simply a matter of ensuring fair pay – the wherewithal to build a decent life while alive rather than wait for potential rewards in Heaven. (Despite having grown up in a very religious home, our Joe tended towards a sceptical view of religion in general, seeing in it a tool for oppression)
By now, Joe Hill had made a name for himself – as had the IWW. Depending on what side of the fence you were on, you either applauded their efforts or derided them, arguing that IWW was working towards destabilising the “natural order of things”. More and more, though, the notion that people should be paid fairly was catching on, even among the middle classes.
In 1911, Joe Hill went to Mexico together with a rag-tag band of men who were determined to depose Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and emancipate the working class. Despite close to six months in Baja California, this early attempt at a Worker’s revolution failed dismally, and instead in 1912, Joe Hill was back in the U.S., appearing in San Diego at a rally promoting worker’s right, popping up to British Columbia to support his fellow labourers while they went on strike, and then returning to California in 1913 to take part in the San Pedro dockworker’s strike. A hectic life, one could say, and wherever he went he left songs.
The 1913 strike in San Pedro had Joe ending up in jail – as per himself because the authorities didn’t like him. After a month or so he was set free, and towards the end of the year he decided to move back to Chicago – being a Swede, I imagine he had a lot of Swedish connections in this the biggest Swedish city outside of Stockholm.
The way to Chicago took him through Utah where Joe earned some money by working in the mines. He arrived at Salt Lake City and was invited to stay in the home of some friends, and there in January of 1914, he was arrested for the murder of two men.
“What happens in Salt lake City, stays in Salt Lake City,” one could paraphrase, as it remains doubtful to this day what really happened in Utah on – I imagine – a very cold January day. The facts as we know them are as follows:
On the evening of January 10, 1914, grocer John Morrison and his son Arlington were shot dead. The son managed to discharge his weapon, injuring their assailant, this as per the testimony of a female witness who heard the fleeing man mumble he’d been shot.
That same evening, Joe Hill knocked on the door of a doctor and requested his help. He had a gunshot wound which he said he’d acquired while quarrelling with a man over a woman.
The doctor put two and two together, and so Joe was arrested, despite denying any charges. In fact, he argued he’d been shot while holding his hands over his head, and the hole to his coat actually supported that statement.
Now this is where some say the entire Joe Hill trial was a major set-up, intended to rid the world of this loud advocate of worker’s rights. Hmm. The death of two people seems somewhat excessive to engineer if you’re going for a set-up, but maybe someone saw an opportunity and decided to frame Joe Hill. Except, of course, that he did have a gunshot wound, and throughout the trial he refused to produce witnesses to corroborate his alibi – an argument over a young woman. This, he said, he did to safeguard her reputation.
Joe Hill was found guilty on very weak evidence. No gun was found in his possession, the few witnesses could not identify him, nor were they certain his voice matched the one they heard. One of the witnesses initially even said “that’s not him!” but went before the jury to say he thought it was Joe he’d seen fleeing the scene…Besides, Joe had been shot – no matter that this had seemingly happened while he had his hands up – and how high was the probability that two men be shot on the same evening in Salt Lake City? (Seeing as four other men were treated for gunshot wounds that same night, quite high, it would seem…) Whatever the case, Joe Hill was found guilty and sentenced to death.
A furore broke out. Labour radicals, various sympathisers and academics, even the well-known daughter of a LDS president demanded that the verdict be overturned. Woodrow Wilson spoke up in behalf of Joe, as did the Swedish ambassador, and through it all, the Utah Governor refused to budge. The man had been tried, found guilty of murder and would die.
What Joe thought of all this is difficult to know. After all, he was still a relatively young man, only 36, and I seriously doubt he willingly designated himself as a sacrificial lamb, initially confident no one would find him guilty on such flimsy evidence. But they did, and somewhere during the long months between the verdict and the execution, he came to realise he wasn’t about to get out of this alive. And so, being Joe Hill, he chose to meet his death as a martyr for the cause of workers everywhere, being the one to yell “Fire!” at the execution squad.
Three bullets to his heart later, he was dead, and one of his colleagues at IWW, Bill Haywood, ensured Joe Hill’s final wish “Don’t waste any time mourning – organise!” was fulfilled. He also took care of Joe’s body, seeing as Joe had requested he be buried elsewhere, “I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”
Since Joe’s death a century has passed, and as late as 2011 new evidence regarding his guilt or not turned up. It is a letter by a certain Helga Erickson who admits that Joe and another Swede were both vying for her attention, the conflict getting uglier and more violent by the day. Problem was Otto Appelquist – the other Swede – was Joe’s best friend. Anyway, in Helga’s letter she describes how she found Joe wounded and he told her he’d been shot by Otto – this prior to finding a doctor.
Personally, the fact that Joe never seems to have resorted to violence previously – nor is known to have carried a gun – has me leaning towards him not being guilty. Whatever the case, the IWW and the subsequent massive turnout at Joe’s funeral in Chicago ensured he became one of the first martyr’s for the Worker’s cause in the U.S. Somehow, I think that would make him smile while he sits in the sky and eats that pie he was denied down here!
Joe Hill’s fate went on to inspire numerous songs, one of the more famous being The Ballad of Joe Hill, once sung by Paul Robeson but performed below by Bruce Springsteen. Yet another thing that would have made Joel Emmanuel Häggström smile.