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    With sarcastic songs, Joe Hill created durable activist tools

    This Thursday is the 100th anniversary of the death of Joe Hill. Born in Sweden in 1879, he came to the United States in his early 20s and worked his way across the country, from New York to San Francisco. As a dockworker in California, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World, the era’s most revolutionary labor union.

    Wobblies (as they were called) were often default suspects in any crime with a hint of anti-business motive. In 1914, Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City, accused of murdering a grocer and his son. One gunman reportedly had been shot during the attack; Hill turned up that night at a doctor’s office with a bullet wound. Research by biographer William Adler revealed a solid alibi (an altercation over a woman), but Hill refused to divulge it. He embraced his martyrdom, knowing his unjust trial and execution would be a propaganda victory for the IWW. On Nov. 19, 1915, Hill faced a firing squad, cheerfully instructing the men to shoot.

    Hill knew propaganda, having been a producer of some of the IWW’s most powerful tools: songs. Most were parodies of familiar hymns and patriotic songs. Hill reworked “There Is Power in the Blood” into “There Is Power in a Union”; “Sweet Bye and Bye” became “The Preacher and the Slave,” a sarcastic ode to religion. His verses anchored the IWW’s Little Red Songbook; after his death, memorial editions proliferated.

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    Hill’s most lasting legacy was a song he didn’t write. In 1936, Earl Robinson set Alfred Hayes’s poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” The song’s popularity was swift and profound. Paul Robeson made it a concert staple; Joan Baez sang it at Woodstock. It became so well known that some IWW members came to think its sentimentality obscured Hill’s message.

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    But the song’s elegant, nonchalant resurrection of Joe Hill (“I never died, says he”) was potent hope. Hill’s legend has waxed and waned over the decades; amid entrenched inequality, capitalists playing prophet, and billionaires posing as populists, one suspects his time may be coming again.

    Matthew Guerrieri

    Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.