Ever heard of union hero Joe Hill? He's missing from most history books today.

If you're a fan of folk music or lyrics about working people, you might be familiar with the song "Joe Hill."

The song, originally written as a poem by Alfred Hayes, has been performed for decades by the likes of Paul Robeson, Joan Baez (at Woodstock in 1969), Phil Ochs, and Billy Bragg.

Among the more memorable renditions is a version by Bruce Springsteen, who plays it here. Go ahead and start it playing while you read about who Joe Hill really was.


The song's lyrics recall a dream where Joe Hill, a workers' hero who was likely framed on a murder charge and sentenced to death, returns in a seemingly spectral form, symbolizing the spirit of the labor movement.

"I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you're 10 years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he..."



Joe Hill isn't a fictional character. He was a poet, songwriter, and a union activist.

(He also inspired the famous union phrase "Don't mourn, organize!" — but more on that later.)

Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, he came to the U.S. from Sweden in the early 1900s with the hopes of finding work. He adapted to his new home by changing his name to Joseph Hillstrom, which he later shortened to Joe Hill once he began to write songs.

Upon arrival in New York City, he sought employment as a migrant laborer but found opportunities sporadic and sometimes nonexistent. This sparked his interest in a labor union, which would give him and his coworkers a voice on the job no matter where they worked.

Image in public domain.

He found his calling when he discovered the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

One of the IWW rallying cries was "one big union," and its goal was uniting every working person worldwide into one union. That sat very well with Hill.

Having been raised in a musical family, he began writing songs, poems, and powerful speeches after joining the IWW. He became the resident lyricist and a frequent cartoonist.

Hill wrote songs about all different types of IWW members, from immigrant factory and railway workers to itinerant laborers moving across the country from job to job. His songs inspired people — and still do today.

His popularity grew when the IWW published the first version of its "Little Red Songbook" in 1909. The musical collection, bearing the subtitle "Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent," was made up mostly of Hill's compositions.

The first edition of "The Little Red Songbook." Image by Hunter Gray.

It included the song "There Is Power in a Union" about ... well, power in a union, and "The Preacher and the Slave," about how religion causes people to fight for things in heaven rather than on earth:

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
[Crowd shouts, "That's a lie!"]



(This is, in fact, where the phrase "pie in the sky" was born.)

Hill would show up at picket lines and strikes across the country, getting the crowd energized and resolute.

His activism drew the attention of authorities, too.

In June 1913, he was arrested for "vagrancy" during a dockworkers strike in San Pedro, California, and put in jail for 30 days. The real reason for the incarceration, according to Hill, was that he "was a little too active to suit the chief of the burg."

So, Hill was on the radar of cops and politicians who didn't want to see unions establishing a presence in their towns. He may have been even more worrisome to authorities than other union leaders since he could energize the workers and reinforce their solidarity with song.

Cover of "The Rebel Girl" by Joe Hill. First published in "The Little Red Songbook," it was released as sheet music in 1915. Image in public domain.

But one cold night in 1914, a turn of events made Joe Hill's name internationally known.

Hill, who was in Salt Lake City to work in the mines, knocked on a doctor's door at 11:30 p.m., needing treatment for a gunshot wound to his chest.

Hill told the doctor he had been shot by a rival suitor for a woman's affection — he never did tell anybody her name.

On that same night, a former police officer named John Morrison, now a grocery store owner, and one of his sons were killed by two people who didn't rob the store.

The murders appeared to be motivated by revenge, perhaps a holdover from Morrison's previous career. Another of Morrison's sons witnessed the shooting and stated that one of the two killers shouted, "We've got you now!" before pulling the trigger.

(And just to note: At least four other people were shot in Salt Lake City that night; it's just kinda how things were back then.)


Salt Lake City, 1890, by Charles Roscoe Savage. Image in public domain.

The doctor who tended to Hill's injuries noted that it was a gunshot to the chest — the same kind as the shopkeeper's surviving son said occurred with the intruder who killed his father and brother.

Over the next few days, 12 different men were arrested for the killings — and each, in succession, was released.

Around the time that the 12th man was cleared, the doctor came forward and offered his patient as a possible suspect. Hill was arrested.

When the grocer's son who survived saw Joe, he stated, "That's not him at all!" However, a few days later after the publicity started and authorities knew they had the famous Joe Hill, he changed his mind and claimed it was definitely Hill he saw that night.

Several aspects of the case made Hill an unlikely suspect.

His injury, a shot through the left lung, would have bled profusely. Yet authorities did not find any blood in the store other than the victims'. No bullet was ever found, nor was there a motive; Joe did not know the shopkeeper, and the assailants didn't even take the money in the register.

The trial itself was a poor excuse for justice, according to author William Adler. Although two young, unknown attorneys volunteered to defend Hill, it became clear partway through that they weren't doing anything of the sort. Hill requested new lawyers, which the judge refused. From that point on, Hill refused to participate in the trial at all, and remained silent.

(In a letter written in 1949, the woman who was there when Hill was shot, Hilda Erickson, confessed that it was her former fiance and a friend of Joe Hill's, Otto Appelquist, who shot him that fateful night.)

After just a few hours, the jury found the 35-year-old guilty. He spent 22 months in prison while he awaited appeals of his sentence: execution by firing squad.

Image via Today in Labor History. Lyrics from the song "Workers of the World, Awaken!"

The IWW sought help from other labor unions around the world, and support began to build.

Backers demanding his release and a retrial sent tens of thousands of letters and circulated petitions.

Among those advocates were then-President Woodrow Wilson, the Swedish minister to the United States, 30,000 Australian IWW members, American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers, and trade unions across the world. Even Helen Keller, the famed deaf and blind activist (who also belonged to the IWW), wrote to the president on Hill's behalf.

The efforts targeted Utah Gov. William Spry, who had been elected to office on a platform that stated he would "sweep out lawless elements, whether they be corrupt businessmen or IWW agitators." Unsurprisingly, he did not intercede on Hill's behalf.

The IWW logo, featuring one of its main slogans: "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All." After Joe Hill was executed, it was really taken to heart.


The governor's record was clear: He had broken a large mineworkers strike and helped the Utah Copper Company bring in strikebreakers who used hired thugs to defeat the union there. Not surprisingly, this did not help Hill one bit.

There's a famous union phrase: "Don't mourn — organize!" Here's the origin story.

While in prison, Hill kept writing poetry, music, letters, and more. In a Aug. 15, 1915, article in the weekly political magazine Appeal to Reason, he stated:

"The main and only fact worth considering, however, is this: I never killed Morrison and do not know a thing about it. He was, as the records plainly show, killed by some enemy for the sake of revenge, and I have not been in the city long enough to make an enemy.

Shortly before my arrest I came down from Park City; where I was working in the mines. Owing to the prominence of Mr Morrison, there had to be a 'goat' and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be 'the goat'.

I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and in my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music.

Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squads - I am ready for you. I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist."





In one of his last letters, when writing to IWW founding member and leader William Dudley Haywood (better known as "Big Bill" Haywood), he wrote these practical yet poignant words:

"Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize... 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."

Haywood changed that to the phrase that has been used by union activists ever since: "Don't mourn — Organize!"

The memory of Joe Hill's words lives on in the hearts of working people the world over.

Hill died on Nov. 19, 1915. According to author Philip Sheldon Foner, when the firing squad was instructed, "Ready ... aim," Joe Hill himself issued the final order before the commander: "Yes, aim! Let 'er go. Fire!"

30,000 people came to his funeral in Chicago. Eulogies were translated into 10 languages. The mourners sang songs by Hill and shut down traffic for hours as the funeral procession stretched for miles. Many had IWW patches, pennants, and red ribbons with the words, "Joe Hill, murdered by the authorities of the state of Utah, November the 19th, 1915."

Especially in times like these, when unions in the United States are very much on the ropes, it's good to remember the words from "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," aka "Joe Hill" — "I never died, says he. I never died, says he."

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says 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
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize

Joe Hill ain't dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain't never died
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize
Says he, You'll find Joe Hill
Says he, You'll find Joe Hill

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he







































Joe Hill's story is nearly 100 years old, but it still is not often told in schoolhouses and history books today. Why do you think that is?

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