Book Review

“A Wobbly Troubadour”

hill_book_cover2a review by John Lennon

The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon
by William M. Adler

448 pages. Bloomsbury USA, 2012.

On Friday, November 19th 1915, Joe Hill, the Swedish immigrant laborer and Wobbly songwriter, was executed at the Utah State Prison for the cold-blooded murders of a grocer and his son. Although his body was riddled with bullets by a firing squad, Hill’s death at age 36 also created a mythical life, a rebel narrative of an American labor radical whose bravery and belief in resistance to U.S. capitalism was so pure that he laid down his life for its cause. This blood sacrifice led him to be immortalized in the pantheon of labor icons and his songs have been sung by generations of protestors from striking miners on the West coast in the 1920s to anti-war students congregating in the front of the White House in the 1970s to out-of-work laborers plucking on their guitars in Zucotti Park during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. That his songs continue to be sung helps partially fulfill one of Hill’s last wishes before he died when he empathically stated, “Don’t Mourn. Organize.”

It is therefore highly appropriate that William M. Adler’s new biography on the labor icon is entitled, “The Man Who Never Died.” The title, however, is a bit of a rhetorical redirection: although Joe Hill’s face has been plastered on advertisements for recent Occupy movements in the 21st century, the man who faced the firing Squad in the second decade of the twentieth century is certainly dead. As a biographer, Adler had an option to examine Hill’s life as myth, analyzing the cultural moment that helped create the larger than life narrative while exploring its meaning as refracted through the generations of labor activists who used him and his songs to sustain their own resistive struggles. Instead, Adler focused on the man himself, specifically attempting to exonerate Hill of the murders. Using a newly discovered letter that places Hill away from the crime scene and doggedly retracing Hill’s life both in his home country and his adopted one, Adler presents a plausible narrative of Hill’s innocence while also compiling evidence against a man whom he names as the actual murderer. In the process, Adler places the blame of the execution on a corrupt and provincial judicial system that convicted Hill on circumstantial evidence, seemingly in an effort to rid radicals from its city’s streets.

The biography, therefore, focuses on the murders and its aftermath. Although the situation is still somewhat clouded, here’s what we know: on Jan 10th, 1914, four years after he arrived in the U.S., Hill visits a doctor in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah with a gunshot wound to his chest. Earlier on this same night, two masked men opened fire in a nearby grocery store, killing the proprietor of the shop, John Morrison (a former police officer), along with his son Arling, who, it was believed, wounded one of the shooters before he died. The police began searching for a suspect, and although they initially questioned a man who seemed like the obvious killer, it was not long before authorities were focusing their suspicion on Hill, quickly arresting him and charging him with murder.

During the raucous trial where Hill fired his attorney and attempted to defend himself (the judge repeatedly denied his request), the young Wobbly decided that since the government’s case was extraordinarily weak and based solely on circumstantial evidence, he would not have to explain how he received his gunshot wound—it was, he reasoned, the government’s job to prove his guilt, not for him to prove his innocence. Whether a matter of principle or a naïve attempt to protect the woman who was the source of the argument that led to his wounding, Hill’s motivations are unclear. What became obvious, though, was that Joe Hill was not going to talk and reveal his secrets.

Adler, on the other hand, is willing to do so. He uncovers a long lost letter from Hilda Erikson, a paramour of Hill, who confesses that it was a man named Otto Applequist who shot the Wobbly songwriter. Applequist, a friend of Hill’s who had been engaged to Erikson before she broke it off, disappeared the very night of the shooting and was never heard from again. Locating Hill as the victim of a lover’s quarrel miles away from the shooting in the grocery store, Adler then searches through volumes of court documents and police ledgers to posthumously charge Magnus Olsen, a notorious thief and murderer who was spotted—apparently injured—at the crime scene, as the killer. A good section of the book reads like an episode of CSI with Adler as the lead detective, piecing together information and compiling his argument to exonerate Hill from the charges and convict Olsen of the crimes.

Adler’s focus on the trial and his effort to exonerate Hill of the murder is a significant addition to labor studies because while (somewhat) freeing Hill’s legacy from the clouded circumstances of his conviction, it also underscores how anti-labor forces use the judiciary to systematically eradicate radical working-class organizing efforts. In the present historical moment when labor unions’ political power, much like its membership roles, is on the wan and legislatures from Texas and Florida (among others) have hostile anti-union agendas, it is important and perhaps galvanizing to look back into history and examine the life-threatening obstacles that radical union men and women faced as they attempted to exert workers’ rights. While his death helped create Hill’s enduring myth, Adler’s book helps situate Hill’s life in clearer focus.

Clearer, but even after 435 pages, Hill is still securely in the shadows, with more questions about his life and motivations than answers. He was born Joel Emmanuel Hagglund in 1879 in Gavle, Sweden. His father died in a railroad accident when he was eight, leaving his family in poverty; at age 22, after the death of his mother, he emigrated to the United States, changing his name to Joseph Hillstrom. By 1910, he was calling himself Joe Hill and bouncing around the country as a member of the floating proletariat, working various jobs as a longshoreman and a miner. Radical in temperament, and sometimes in legal trouble, he also became an ardent member of the International Workers of the World (IWW). At some point he began singing songs—using the tunes of religious hymns and popular Salvation Army songs, Hill changed the religious lyrics to pointedly, and amusingly, rail against wage slavery while advocating for workers’ rights. Many of his songs, including  arguably his most famous “The Preacher and the Slave” were collected in different editions of the IWW’s songbook (also known as The Little Red Songbook). Singing was a propaganda tool for the IWW and his songs were immensely popular–even if they did not know Hill personally, many radical hoboes hopping trains to look for work, miners heading underground to dig for precious metals and agricultural bindlestiffs picking apples sang his songs as they traveled, worked and sat in the squalor of company job sites.

Although Adler does a remarkable job trying to track Hill down during these four years where he was traveling throughout the U.S., much of Hill’s travels cannot be conclusively situated (there are many times in the text where the phrase “Hill might have been . . .” is used). This is a shame because although the focus of the book is on his trail and execution, I was much more interested in the parts that explored an earlier, shadowy Joe Hill. Although Hill might have morphed into a quintessential union man and his songs are sung in various union halls and during present day environmental and street protests—he was staunchly a Wobbly.  Contrary to trade labor unions like the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW was not concerned with finding a place for the working man within the capitalist system—they wanted to get rid of capitalism all together. They were radicals who believed in organized agitation, sabotage and direct action. It is this connection between Hill and the IWW that potentially holds the most powerful and new insight—how a poor Swedish immigrant became the voice of the most radical union in the United States. To know Hill’s thoughts and influences, his beliefs and day-to-day struggles would help us know more about the Wobblies—and about the man.

Adler works hard at trying to uncover this information. During their successful free speech fights where numerous Wobblies would be arrested for public speaking and then demand separate trials, clogging up jails and placing financial burdens on the municipalities holding them—it was Joe Hill’s songs that they sung loudly in their cells. It can also be assumed that Hill’s songs filled the air as Wobbly recruits—including Hill himself—made their way to Baja, California to join the rebel army of Flores Magon in their insurrection against the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz. But while his songs were sung at free speech rallies and in various armed conflicts, what were the motivations that led Hill to sing those songs?  What particular free speech fights did Hill himself participate in? What was his understanding of the politics of the day—for example, what did he think about Magon and the Mexican Liberal Party? The answers to these questions are unknown—while Hill became vocal in his letters during the appeals process while on Death Row, as Adler points out, he was already morphing into a myth, playing the role of the martyr before he was executed. The simple fact is that we do not really know much of his life before he was arrested in Utah on charges of murder. We get glimpses of the man, and, more importantly, we get some contextualization and history of the larger fights that the IWW participated within. But although this IWW history has already been written,[1] discussing it more thoroughly through the lens of their most important songwriter would have fleshed out this history. Again, Adler cannot be blamed for this; instead he should be praised for at least locating as much personal history as he did find.

But there are other ways to get at this information. I wish, for example, that Alder had spent more time exploring the songs that Joe Hill sang. A cultural history of the lyrics—a close reading that reveals the specific socio-political attributes of the songs—would have been welcome. Many of the songs are reprinted (although sadly not in full) and often they are without comment. The result is an impression that they were merely propaganda. While they were certainly Wobbly tools for spreading the seeds of discontent, the songs are also richly written with memorable characters and vicious situations—and it would have been helpful to contextualize these scenes within the larger Wobbly fight. In this vein, it would also have been helpful to contextualize Hill’s lyrics with other political songs and songwriters of the era. How do Hill’s songs compare to the other songs in The Little Red Songbook? How does he compare to other radical songwriters of the time? By taking Hill’s songs more seriously, a more dynamic understanding of Hill—and the Wobblies—could have been uncovered.

To his credit, Adler does use these songs to discuss Hill’s complicated view of religion. Hill certainly had no love of religion or, as his songs prove, preachers. Insightfully, Adler examines Hill’s upbringing, detailing how the Church of Sweden, with its strict doctrine and oppressive influence on its members from the cradle to the grave, were partial motivation for Hill’s lifelong antagonism towards organized religion. Knowing this background gives the reader more clarity to understanding his reworking of The Salvation Army hymns as he transformed them into profane battle songs for the radical proletariat. But it is Adler’s revealing of Hill’s personal warm relationship with a preacher who allowed Hill to use his church’s piano to create these rebel songs that allows for a wonderful, complex human presence to be felt by the reader. It is in these moments where Adler’s biography comes to life.

In the end, perhaps due to impossibility of tracking down a man who left very little trace of himself besides his songs, Adler spends the bulk of the text combing over the trial and working on clearing Hill of the charges of murder. The focus in these pages reads like an interesting—although repetitive—courtroom drama with appeals from diverse people as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Helen Keller and Woodrow Wilson attempting to stay the execution. Court testimony is presented and a persuasive reconstruction of the murder scene is detailed. As a result of Adler’s reporting, many will be persuaded that a friend shot Hill in a jealous rage and his Wobbly’s execution was unjustified. For this, Adler should be praised. The hope is that a reader will be inspired by this text and write a philosophical biography where Hill’s songs—as seen through the Wobbly philosophy—are the centerpiece.

[1] Joe Hill has been the focus of numerous fictional and nonfictional studies. Wallace Stegner in Joe Hill (Penguin, 1990) published a controversial reimagined view of the Wobbly’s life that led readers to believe he probably committed the murders. Archie Green published a Joe Hill case-study in his book Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations (University of Illinois Press, 1993) that offers a short cultural history of the singer. Franklin Rosemont, Joe Hill, The IWW & the making of a Revolutionary (Charles H. Kerr 2003) is the most informative of all of the texts written about Hill’s life that examines the radical union through Joe Hill’s songs. For readers interested in an informative primer on Joe Hill and the Wobblies, this is the best text to read. For those interested in the songs themselves, some of Joe Hill’s songs have been reprinted in Barrie Stavis and Frank Harrmons edited collection Songs of Joe Hill (Oak Archives, 2006). His songs have been song by many songwriters; the best collection that I know of is Don’t Mourn – Organize!: Songs Of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill (Smithsonian Folkways 1992).

John Lennon earned his B.A. from Kings College and his Ph.D. from Lehigh University. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Florida.  At USF he teaches courses in 20th-century American literature and film with a cultural studies orientation. His research is principally concerned with how marginalized individuals exert a politicized voice in collectivized actions. Dr. Lennon is completing his monograph, Boxcar Politics: The Hobo in Literature and Culture 1869-1956, that explores how writers and riders created powerful dissenting working class voices outside of fixed hierarchal organizations. His work has appeared in various edited volumes and journals including American Studies,Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging KnowledgeAcoma, and Americana: Journal of American Popular Culture.

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  1. Thanks for this wonderful review! Sounds like an excellent addition to the historiography of labor history, cultural history, and intellectual history.

    A work like this could, in some ways, provide a template for other figures in American history who’ve become political martyrs thanks to the justice system. But I’m also intrigued by your remark in regards to wanting “a cultural history of the lyrics”; that could be an interesting book, perhaps even with a broader scope to include both labor songs and civil rights songs.

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