Jaz Brisack: November 2015 Archives

Don't Mourn -- Organize!

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joe hill.jpg100 years ago today, labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill was executed after being framed for a murder he didn't commit.

Later renowned as the "Singing Wobbly," a nickname derived from his affiliation with the International Workers of the World, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund was born in Sweden on October 17th, 1879. When he was 23, he immigrated to the United States, where he became a migrant worker and began learning English. Blacklisted for joining a union, he changed his name to Joseph Hillstrom, which he would shorten to Joe Hill when he began publishing songs and cartoons through the I.W.W.'s press.

The impact of Joe Hill's songs on American society was incredible. They were rollicking, satirical tunes, set to the melodies of popular songs or hymns, that were easy to learn and quickly spread to workers in all industries and parts of the country.

"Mr. Block" described a "common working man" whose "head is made of lumber, and solid as a rock," which leads him to believe everything his bosses tell him about his own upward mobility, the efficacy of courts and elections in achieving social change, and, especially, the subversiveness of labor unions.

Similarly, "Scissor Bill" is a worker -- referred to as "the missing link that Darwin tried to trace" -- who is satisfied with his condition and thus "says he never organized and never will" and who "is down on everybody," particularly foreigners and minorities. Scissor Bill was only interested in protecting himself. According to another labor songwriter, Ralph Chaplin (the author of "Solidarity Forever"), "When asked by a police court judge to define the word "scissorbill", Joe Hill is reported to have replied 'The "scissorbill", your Honor, is an "I guy"; we happen to be "we guys".'"

"The Preacher and the Slave" parodied the hymn "Sweet Bye and Bye," lambasting the "long-haired preachers" and members of "the starvation army" who would attempt to drown out I.W.W. speakers with their choirs. The song also ridicules their notion that the union member who fights for "something good in this life" is "a sinner and a bad man," while the worker who is content to "work and pray, live on hay" will "get pie in the sky when you die" -- a phrase Hill coined in this song.

"There is Power in a Union," referred to by the more recent I.W.W. singer Utah Phillips as "Joe Hill's best song," delivered a like message, declaring that only "the grand Industrial band" could deliver workers from "misery and hunger."

Joe Hill wrote that "if a person can put a few cold, common sense facts into a song, and dress them up in a cloak of humor to take the dryness off of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science." He was right: Ralph Chaplin reported that "Joe Hill could stop traffic on busy skid row street corners singing [his] hilarious songs"; strikers died at the hands of brutal strikebreakers singing his rousing lyrics.

From the perspective of the "bosses," such an effective voice had to be silenced. One night in Salt Lake City, Joe Hill was shot by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. This injury was used to connect him to a murder that had taken place nearby, even though a known serial killer was apprehended nearby (and soon set free). Thus, Joe Hill went before the firing squad on November 19th, 1915.

This strategy did not turn out as expected. Hill himself came to embody the cause he had lived and died for. Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson wrote a song, officially titled "Joe Hill" but more often referred to as "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," in which an apparition of the slain singer declares that it "takes more than guns to kill a man/I didn't die," concluding, "Where workers strike and organize/It's there you'll find Joe Hill." This song became a favorite of folk legends Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen, and has helped keep Joe Hill's memory alive.

Paul Robeson's version of the "Joe Hill" song declares, "The copper bosses killed you, Joe." To this day, their successors continue to kill both people and the planet alike. This is evident in the trial of Don Blankenship, the CEO of an energy company whose Upper Big Branch Mine, located in West Virginia, exploded five years ago, killing 29 miners. He is a living example of Joe Hill's description of the "greedy master class," who "live by robbing the ever-toiling mass/Human blood they spill to satisfy their greed." The environmental impacts of his company's practices on the region have been similarly devastating. Jurors are currently deliberating whether to hold him accountable for his company's heinous neglect.

This instance, as well as thousands of similar cases worldwide, demonstrate the importance of our remembering Joe Hill's message. The industrial interests he campaigned against still threaten the lives of workers and the survival of the planet. Mines, factories, agricultural corporations, so-called "development projects" and other manifestations of this mindset exploit labor while leeching toxins into the environment and ruining irreplaceable ecosystems. When companies prioritize profits above all else, everything suffers. Thus, we must "do our share, lend a hand" to end this terrible system. As Joe Hill said just before his death, "Don't mourn -- organize!"

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by Jaz Brisack in November 2015.

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