Though it’s a century too late to save Joe Hill from the Utah firing squad, Bucky Halker wants to rescue him from the folkies.
Hill was the bard of the itinerant and the immigrant, the unskilled and the unwanted. He took the raw material of working-class lives and turned it into music—songs to amuse, to organize, to “fan the flames of discontent.” As semi-official songwriter for the militant Industrial Workers of the World—popularly known as the Wobblies—he composed songs to be sung on soapboxes, picket lines or in jail.
In 1914, Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City for killing a storekeeper, allegedly in a botched robbery. Despite the flimsy nature of the evidence, Hill was convicted and sentenced to death. An international amnesty movement pressed for a new trial, but Utah’s governor refused and Hill was executed on November 19, 1915.
Since his death, Hill has been immortalized in a wide variety of cultural expression: poetry by Kenneth Patchen, fiction by Wallace Stegner, a song by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson, popularized by Paul Robeson, promising “wherever workingmen are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side.” But primarily Hill’s legacy has been kept alive by such folk artists as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Utah Phillips.
Halker, a Chicago musician and labor historian, has released a CD of new interpretations of Hill’s music, “Anywhere But Utah—The Songs of Joe Hill” (Revolting Records, available online at CD Baby), taking his title from Hill’s dying wish that his remains be transported out of state because he didn’t want “to be found dead in Utah.”
Halker draws on a wide range of musical forms while maintaining the humor and pointed commentary of the originals. The album includes such Hill classics as “The Preacher and the Slave,” “There is Power in a Union” and “Rebel Girl” as well as some surprising obscurities, like the wistfully romantic “Come and Take a Joy-Ride in My Aeroplane.”
“I wanted to make a record that Hill would like,” Halker says. “I don’t think he’d like a straight folk revival, strumming acoustic guitar approach, as that has nothing to do with most of his material. The folk revivalists did a great service by keeping Hill’s work in circulation, but trying to keep him in that small musical box is way off the mark. So, I borrowed from vaudeville and the music hall, piano blues and early jazz, alt-country, swing, punk, and gospel.”
Hill occasionally wrote his own music, but he typically used the tunes of hymns or popular songs of the day. As Halker comments, “With all his tune choices, he was like other working-class writers and had the same goal—use tunes that workers knew already for labor songs and then they’d be easy for workers to sing.
“The IWW cleverly used singing and chanting as a way to garner attention from workers, the media, and the authorities,” Halker continues. “Fifty workers singing makes a lot more noise at a rally or in a jail cell than one speaker on a soapbox or one person ranting in the joint.”
Hill’s mastery of American vernacular is especially impressive given his background as a Swedish immigrant.
“His work is filled with humor, irony and sarcasm, hardly easy skills to gain in your second language,” Halker comments. “You can tell from his lyrics that he paid close attention to the musical hall and Tin Pan Alley writers of the day.”
“I think that Hill and other Wobbly bards and writers should get some credit for their use of sarcasm and irony in the development of American literature,” Halker continues. “They had sharp wits and tongues that worked deftly and at great speed, something which only pissed off the lunkhead bosses, the law and the ruling elite even more. The authorities and their lackeys dislike radicals and they really hate them when they’re much smarter than they are.”
David Cochran teaches history at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.