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“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
The ballad of Joe Hill

Bill Scott looks at one of the greatest union anthems ever written.

Ballad of Joe Hill
Lyric: Haye Music; Robinson

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.

“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
They shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes.
Says Joe “What they can never kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize”
From San Diego up to Maine,
(Scots variant: “From Lesmahagow up to Tain…)
In every mine and mill,
Where working-folk defend their rights,
It’s there you find Joe Hill,
It’s there you find Joe Hill!

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died” said he,
“I never died” said he.

A gifted songwriter and union organiser, Joe Hill (1879-1915) became famous in death. Before then, Joe Hill was well-known in hobo camps, on picket lines and trade union meetings as the author of popular songs and as a ‘Wobbly’ agitator. Thanks to his songs and his stirring call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution, Hill became an American folk hero.

Joe Hill

Born Joel Hägglund on 7 October 1879, Joe grew up in a devout Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father worked as a railroad conductor. In 1887, Joe’s father died from a work injury and the children were forced to leave school and support themselves. The 9-year-old Joe worked in a rope factory and later as a stoker. In 1900, ill with tuberculosis, he moved to Stockholm and endured radiation treatment and a series of painful operations. Two years later, following the death of their mother, Joe and his brother, Paul, emigrated to the United States.

Little is known of Joe for the next 12 years. He had various jobs in New York before heading to Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop and was reputedly fired for trying to organise a union. He was in Cleveland in 1905, then in San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and in San Pedro, California, in 1910. It was there that he joined the International Workers of the World (the IWW or ‘Wobblies’), serving as secretary of the San Pedro local.


It was in San Pedro that Joe wrote many of his most famous songs. The IWW concentrated their efforts on organising workers which other traditional, craft-based unions, neglected - the migratory labourers of the mining, lumber and construction camps. In between jobs these migrant workers would gather in the ‘Skid Rows’ of Portland, Seattle and other cities and there, on the street corners, was the Salvation Army band - anxious to save lost souls. Joe was inspired by the ‘Sally Army’s’ hypocrisy to write a devastating parody of the hymn “The Sweet Bye and Bye”. His, “The Preacher and the Slave,” is better known as “Pie in the Sky”

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

CHORUS: 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.


Many of Joe’s songs later appeared in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book”. In 1911, Joe was in Tijuana, Mexico, as part of an army of several hundred hoboes and radicals who crossed the border seeking to aid Mexican insurgents in overthrowing the dictator, Porfirio Diaz. The invasion lasted six months before internal disagreements and a large detachment of Mexican troops drove the remaining 100 rebels back across the border.

In 1912, Hill was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of Wobblies, socialists, suffragettes and AFL (trade union) members in San Diego that protested against a police decision to close the area to street meetings. He also helped organise a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, before returning to San Pedro, where he lent his support to a strike of Italian dockworkers. The dockworkers’ strike led to Hill’s first recorded arrest; he was held for 30 days on a charge of “vagrancy”.

The Copper Bosses

By 1913, Hill was in Utah helping to organise local copper miners into the IWW. On 10 January 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said had been inflicted by an angry husband who had accused Hill of ‘insulting’ his wife. Earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed in a robbery. One of the robbers had been shot at by the younger victim before he died; Hill’s injury therefore potentially linked him to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses convinced a local jury of Hill’s guilt, even though neither was able to identify him as one of the robbers.

The campaign to overturn Hill’s conviction began two months before his trial and continued long after his execution on 19 November 1915. His supporters included labour activists such as AFL President, Samuel Gompers, and even the US President, Woodrow Wilson. The Utah Supreme Court, however, refused to overturn the verdict or commute Hill’s sentence. Hill was not helped by his repeated refusal to identify his alleged assailant, insisting that to do so would harm the reputation of the lady.

Don’t Mourn, Organise

Joe became more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organise! 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 died like a true rebel. A member of his firing squad 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 thousands of mourners heard Hill’s song “Rebel Girl” (about fellow IWW organiser, Elizabeth Gurney Flynn) sung for the first time and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery, where his body was cremated. The ashes were then mailed to IWW locals in every state - except Utah! The envelopes were opened on 1 May 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds, in accordance with Hill’s last wishes.

However, unbeknown to the IWW, one envelope containing Hill’s ashes had been seized by the US Postal Service because they said it contained “seditious material”! The envelope was then held in the US National Archives until 1988 when it was finally handed back to the IWW. In 1989, a ceremony was held to unveil a monument to six unarmed striking miners who were machine-gunned by Colorado state police in Lafayette in 1927. Joe Hill’s final envelope of ashes was scattered on their graves.

Joe Hill’s martyrdom and contribution to the labour movement was immortalised in a tribute poem, written around 1930, by Alfred Hayes titled “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”, usually referred to simply as “Joe Hill”. Hayes’ lyrics were later turned into a song by Earl Robinson in 1936. The great folk-singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie was directly inspired by Joe Hill in both his own songwriting and the wandering, left-activist way in which he lived his life.

There is also no doubt in my mind that the lyrics of “Joe Hill” were in John Steinbeck’s mind when he wrote Tom Joad’s farewell speech to his mother in his classic of the Dustbowl era, “The Grapes of Wrath” -
“I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there….”

The legendary Black activist, actor and singer, Paul Robeson recorded and regularly performed a stunning version of “Joe Hill” that was in-turn covered by acts as diverse as Irish folk group, Luke Kelly & The Dubliners, through to Joan Baez live at Woodstock, and 1970s Scots folk group, and Clydeside shop-stewards, “The Laggan” (on their CD “I am the Common Man”). Their lead-singer, Arthur Johnston, confirmed to me that he’d learnt the song from listening to an old Robeson album owned by his parents. “I never died said he”.