Friday, November 18, 2005

The Ballad of Joe Hill

On November 19, 1915, as working men were being sent to slaughter each other for rival imperial powers, working class hero and songwriter Joe Hill was executed by firing squad in the state of Utah.

In 1925, Alfred Hayes wrote a poem about Joe Hill entitled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", but sometimes just called "Joe Hill". Hayes's lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson.
It has been sung by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, and by the Irish singer Luke Kelly. Probably the best known version today was sung and recorded by Joan Baez in 1969, and featured in the film by Joe's fellow-Swede Bo Widerborg in 1971. Bob Dylan has said that Joe Hill's story helped inspire him to write his own songs.

But the lyrics as sung have sometimes varied, as the ballad was passed down over the years, sung at benefit concerts, and meetings, around campfires or in pubs.

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.
"In Salt Lake, Joe," says I to him,
him standing by my bed,
"They framed you on a murder charge,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."

"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,
in every mine and mill,
where workers fight,
to defend their rights,
That's where 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.


And now, below, a poem that seems as relevant today as in 1915. On a personal note, my great-grandfather as a boy was an unwilling conscript for the Czar, and my Dad was driven by poverty and unemployment as a lad to become a soldier for the British Raj. So, should I ever be a soldier....

Should I Ever Be a Soldier
By Joe Hill


We're spending billions every year
For guns and ammunition.
"Our Army" and "our Navy" dear,
To keep in good condition;
While millions live in misery
And millions died before us,
Don't sing "My Country 'tis of thee,"
But sing this little chorus.

Should I ever be a soldier,
'Neath the Red Flag I would fight;
Should the gun I ever shoulder,
It's to crush the tyrant's might.
Join the army of the toilers,
Men and women fall in line,
Wage slave of the world! Arouse!
Do your duty for the cause,
For Land and Liberty.

And many a maiden, pure and fair,
Her love and pride must offer
On Mammon's altar in despair,
To fill the master's coffer.
The gold that pays the mighty fleet,
From tender youth he squeezes,
While brawny men must walk the street
And face the wintry breezes.

Why do they mount their gatling gun
A thousand miles from ocean,
Where hostile fleet could never run
-- Ain't that a funny notion?
If you don't know the reason why,
Just strike for better wages,
And then, my friends -- if you don't die
-- You'll sing this song for ages.

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