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Chicago remembers Joe Hill

By Richard Berg |
January 11, 2014
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Joe Hill
Joe Hill
Musician John Langford
Current IWW representative Matt Muchowski
Musician John Langford
Current IWW representative Matt Muchowski

Chicago, IL - On Jan. 10 the progressive Uri-Eichen Gallery in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood opened its doors to celebrate a true people’s artist, Joe Hill. Joe Hill was a member of the revolutionary labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was known for its popular art and music which captured the imagination of millions of workers. None of the IWW members was more famous for song writing and music than Joe Hill.

Larry Spivack, President of the Illinois Labor History Society, introduced Joe Hill’s legacy to the 100 people gathered. Spivack said, “Joe Hill and his union celebrated the serious matters of daily life with music, art and humor.” The walls of the Uri-Eichen Gallery were decorated with drawings by Joe Hill, photos of Joe Hill and a few paintings by the evening’s musical headliner, Jon Langford of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers.

Historian Paul Durica captivated the audience by moderating the story of Joe Hill’s arrest 100 years ago, the frame up, the world wide campaign to free him and his subsequent execution by the state of Utah. Durica used those gathered to play the different roles in a reenactment, showing how Joe Hill was framed for murder and why he was innocent. Durica said, “Joe Hill developed a special friendship with a young IWW unionist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn while in prison awaiting execution.” Durica selected members of the audience to read Joe Hill’s actual letters from jail to the revolutionary activist. He explained how one of Hill’s most famous songs, Rebel Girl, was inspired by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Durica effectively brought Joe Hill to life.

Joe Hill, born Joel Haggalund, like so many workers here, was an immigrant. He came to the U.S. from Sweden in 1902 at the age of 23 and changed his name to Joe Hillstrom, later becoming famous as Joe Hill. He did a variety of jobs, including stacking wheat, mining copper, playing piano, laying pipe and more. Hill joined the radical IWW union in San Pedro, California in 1910.

He was an IWW worker, an organizer, but quickly became their most effective propagandist. The IWW published the popular Little Red Songbook. Hill wrote songs that attacked labor enemies with humor. An example is the anti-union Salvation Army. They would use their band to try to drown out pro-union soapbox speakers. Workers loved to sing Joe Hill’s revolutionary words to the bands’ Christian melody. It drove the Salvation Army obstructionists nuts.

In a tribute to Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote, “Joe writes songs that sing, that lilt and laugh and sparkle, that kindle the fires of revolt in the most crushed spirit and quicken the desire for fuller life in the most humble slave.”

Current IWW representative Matt Muchowski read the last will of Joe Hill:

“My Will is easy to decide,

For there is nothing to divide.

My kin don’t need to fuss and moan -

‘Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.’

My body?- Oh!- If I could choose,

I would to ashes it reduce,

And let the merry breezes blow

My dust to where the flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then

Would come to life and bloom again.

This is my last and final will.

Good luck to all of you.”

--Joe Hill

In a telegram to IWW leader Bill Haywood, Hill requested being cremated in Wyoming writing, “I don’t want to be caught dead in Utah.” According to his wishes, he was cremated across the border in Wyoming. Haywood had his ashes divided up and sent to radical unions, parties and organizations around the world.

Muchowski said, “Even then the U.S. government was spying on radicals. It was a regular government practice to steal IWW letters from the U.S. Postal Service. Recently the magazine In These Times uncovered that they had stolen some of Joe Hill’s ashes and still had them filed away.” Through struggle the union was able to get the ashes back and send them again around the world so that as Hill himself said, “some fading flower would come back to life and bloom again.”

The evening finished with the talented John Langford playing music and telling stories. Langford played songs of working class resistance. He paid tribute to Hill, but also to Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and others. Langford brought grit as well as freewheeling musical fun. Langford, a Welsh immigrant, shared his perspective on working class art with the audience.

The evening was clearly a success. Uri-Eichen owners Kath Steichen and Chis Urias were working hard behind the scenes. Urias said, “This is the best event we have ever had here.” Steichen said, “Our gallery belongs to the working class people of our community. Joe Hill was the ultimate working class artist. It is natural that we would honor him on the centennial of the struggle to save his life. Tonight’s opening is Part I, we will have several Joe Hill openings culminating in a program to mark the 100th anniversary of Hill’s execution by the state of Utah on Nov. 19, 1915.

Richard Berg is the past president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743 and currently is employed as a staff representative by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.