(All music and lyrics written, arranged and produced by Stephen Michael Murphy (c) 2010)
Human history is about people, the salt of the earth, the blood, sweat and tears of workers who produce our daily bread and our greatest achievements. Of course there are always those who consider themselves better by birth, ability or intellect claiming their God given right to lead the flock. This amplifies an age old bone of contention between the haves and the have-nots until another round of conflict becomes inevitable. While most genuflect before power and money taking the crumbs that fall a precious few see economic and social justice as moral necessity. We live in a time of a great forgetting; young people have no idea that a century ago in the United States many died protesting for a forty hour work week instead of 60-70 hours of servitude and for child education instead of child labor. Labor activism at the turn of the century was a vibrant undertaking as workers desperately tried to assert themselves against crude captains of industry and the gathering power of industrial capitalism. “Rhythm of Our Work” is a tune dedicated to that Herculean effort which eventually helped create the first dominant middle class in human history. Marsia Harris sings soulfully from the past, from the old union halls asking us to remember those who sacrificed, who stood up to power, who eventually succeeded in gaining hard fought concessions from entrenched management and their owners. In the modern take it for granted world, anti-union forces have seized opportunities to roll back the clock since 1980’s Reagan, in places like Wisconsin and in the other 22 “right to work” American states, a misleading euphemism that really means eliminate unions and reclaim for the rich, the power of the middle class.
With so many heroes of the early struggle forgotten one songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became internationally famous after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the world wide campaign to have his conviction reversed, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers’ rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks to his songs and stirring well publicized call to fellow workers on the eve of his execution “Don’t waste time mourning, organize”, Hill remains the best known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.
Joe Hill,was born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879. The future “troubadour of discontent” grew up the fourth of six children in a devoutly religious Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father Olaf worked as a railroad conductor. Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers’ association hall in Gävle and played piano at local cafés.
In 1887 Hill’s father died from an occupational injury and the children were forced to quit school to support themselves. The 9-year-old Hill worked in a rope factory and later as a fireman on a steam-powered crane. After being stricken with skin and joint tuberculosis in 1900, Hill moved to Stockholm in search of a cure and worked odd jobs while receiving radiation treatment and a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck. Two years later Hill’s mother, Margareta Katarina Hägglund, died after undergoing operations to cure a persistent back ailment. With her death, the six surviving Hägglund children sold the family home and ventured out on their own. Four of them settled elsewhere in Sweden, but the future Joe Hill and his younger brother Paul booked passage to the United States in 1902.
Little is known of Hill’s doings or whereabouts over the next 12 years. He worked at various odd jobs in New York before heading out for Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop, got fired and was then blacklisted for attempting to organize a union. The record finds him in Cleveland in 1905, in San Francisco during the 1906 Great Earthquake and in San Pedro, Calif., in 1910. There he joined the IWW, served for several years as the secretary for the San Pedro local and wrote many of his most famous songs, including “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Casey Jones—A Union Scab.” His compositions, appearing in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book,” addressed the experience of virtually every major IWW group, from immigrant factory workers to homeless migratory workers and railway shop craft workers.
In 1911 he was in Tijuana, Mexico part of an army of several hundred wandering hoboes and radicals, who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, seize Baja California, emancipate the working class and declare industrial freedom. The invasion lasted six months before internal dissension and a large detachment of better trained Mexican troops drove the last 100 rebels back across the border. In 1912, Hill was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of “Wobblies”1, socialists, suffragists and AFL members in San Diego that protested a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also put in an appearance at a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, writing several songs before returning to San Pedro where he lent musical support to a strike of Italian dockworkers.
The San Pedro dockworkers’ strike led to Hill’s first recorded encounter with the police, who arrested him in June 1913 and held him for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy because, he said later, he was “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg” during the strike. On Jan. 10, 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor at 11:30 p.m. asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said was inflicted by an angry husband who had accused him of insulting his wife. Earlier that evening in another part of town a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants was wounded in the chest by the younger victim before he died which linked Hill with his injury to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of his alibi convinced a local jury of Hill’s guilt, even though neither witness was able to identify him conclusively and the gun used in the murders was never recovered.
The campaign to exonerate Hill began two months before the trial and continued up to and even beyond his execution by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915. His supporters included the socially prominent daughter of a former Mormon Church president, labor radicals, activists and sympathizers including AFL President Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States and even President Woodrow Wilson. The Utah Supreme Court, however, refused to overturn the verdict and the Utah Board of Pardons would not commute Hill’s sentence. The board did declare its willingness to hear testimony from the woman’s husband in a closed session, but Hill refused to identify his alleged assailant insisting that to do so would harm the reputation of the lady.
Hill became even more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Apparently he did die like a rebel; a member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.
After a brief service in Salt Lake City, Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where 30,000 mourners heard Hill’s “Rebel Girl” sung for the first time, listened to hours of speeches and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery. There the body was cremated and the ashes mailed to IWW locals in every state but Utah as well as to supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe. According to one of Hill’s Wobbly-songwriter colleagues, Ralph Chaplin (who wrote the words to “Solidarity Forever,”), all the envelopes were opened on May 1, 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds, in accordance with Hill’s last wishes, expressed in a poem written on the eve of his death2:
My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide
My kind won’t need to fuss and moan
“Moss does not cling to a rolling stone”
My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some fading flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flowers then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to you. J Hill
1 IWW (members nicknamed Wobblies) is a union organization for the unskilled worker created in 1905 with an emphasis on people over profit.
2 Joe Hill Story, from the AFLCIO website