Joe Hill Returns: Labor Movements and Protest Music

By: Felicia Miyakawa (Round Rock, TX) //

Joan Baez performs “Joe Hill” at the Occupy Wall Street Veteran’s Day rally, November 11, 2011.

In 2011, singer Joan Baez performed the song “Joe Hill” for a Veteran’s Day rally sponsored by Occupy Wall Street, a movement that began in New York City that same year in response to widespread financial corruption at banks and corporations. Baez has long been known for her work as an activist; although she might be new to younger generations, her voice is still respected at protests. The assembled crowd was clearly familiar with her song choice, but for those who may not have known all the words, she spoke each line of the final verses before inviting them to join in. Protest music as a communal activity depends entirely on the audience’s familiarity with the song and its willingness to sing along.

Singing is a crucial aspect of mobilization, and “Joe Hill” is one of the best-known songs of several generations of the labor movement. Composed by Earl Robinson in 1936 for a text by Alfred Hayes,1 “Joe Hill” commemorates the life of labor activist Joe Hill (1879-1915), who was executed in November 1915 after a questionable murder trial. Hill was quickly canonized as a labor saint, inspiring songs, stories, and decades of conjecture about what really happened to him. Hill’s legacy is still well known in labor circles; one of the organizers of the Occupy Wall Street movement chose to work under the pseudonym “Joe Hill,” and Joe Hill’s name and legacy have been revived in commentaries that compare the labor movement of the 1930s with Occupy Wall Street. The song itself continues to be relevant wherever and whenever laborers gather: “From San Diego up to Maine,
 in every mine and mill / Where working men defend their rights,
 it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” Joe Hill, labor activist (1879-1915)

When “Joe Hill” first entered the repertoire of labor activists, the country was still digging out of the Great Depression, a financial disaster brought on by the collapse of banks and subsequent Wall Street Crash in late 1929. In 1936, the unemployment rate was over 16%. It’s hard to fathom, but 16% was an improvement over the devastating previous four years, each of which saw an unemployment rate of over 20%. (By contrast, the Federal government reported an unemployment rate of 8.9% in 2011, and 9.6% in 2010.) It would be several more years before the economy would recover. In the meantime, people were desperate for good jobs that paid enough to support their families without imperiling their lives. In the mid-1930s, laborers began to organize into unions to fight for fair wages and better working conditions. They gathered for protests, rallies, and subversive acts, meant to draw attention to unequal distributions of wealth and dangerous working conditions across the United States.

Coal Miners and farm workers agitate for labor in the 1930s.

Union organizations such as the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Unions teamed up with community training facilities to educate their members. CIO leaders named one of these training centers, Highlander Folk School (originally located in Monteagle, TN, and now in New Market, TN) the CIO’s official training center in 1937. When laborers and union leaders went to Highlander, they learned political theory and grassroots organization techniques. They also learned songs, and they brought those songs with them to the picket lines, labor rallies, and meetings.

Laborers sang from songbooks, inexpensively printed collections that usually contained only the words, which were often sung to a familiar tune. (This type of song is called a contrafact, or a parody.) “The CIO’s in Dixie,” for example, was sung to the tune of “Dixie”; “Solidarity,” a union favorite, was sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Union chapters distributed these songbooks to their workers, and labor centers gave them out during training classes. Highlander issued its own collections of labor songs, most of which were compiled by Zilphia Horton (1910-1956), the music director at Highlander for nearly two decades and a crucial figure in both the labor rights movement and the Civil Right movement. 

In some cases, activists wrote labor songs with new words and music. Such is the case of “Joe Hill,” which appeared in six of Horton’s twelve songbooks (the earliest appearing in 1938).2 “Joe Hill” was also later included in a dozens of songbooks compiled by socialist, labor, and communist organizations, including The Little Red Songbook, the official songbook of the International Workers of the World, the union to which Joe Hill devoted his life. (Indeed, The Little Red Songbook also included several songs written by Hill himself, and the 1916 edition, which was published a year after Hill’s execution, was called the “Joe Hill memorial edition.”) Without a familiar tune, labor leaders would have had to teach the melody to their members, probably in a manner similar to how Joan Baez taught the audience to sing in the above video clip. Indeed, labor songbooks were sometimes printed in two, simultaneous editions: one with text only, and one with text and music for song leaders. Zilphia Horton did this kind of work, too: she traveled from protest to protest with her accordion, teaching new labor songs to the workers, and leading the singing with her rich alto voice.

“Joe Hill” spread quickly, helped along by both traveling laborers (Earl Robinson later reported that the song was sung by soldiers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade as they fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War) and recording artists. Robinson himself recorded “Joe Hill” several times, and in the 1940s, prominent concert and recording artists began to add “Joe Hill” to their repertoires. In 1942, for example, famed bass Paul Robeson recorded “Joe Hill” with composer Lawrence Brown at the piano. (Robeson was later blacklisted as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s inquiries into his membership in the Communist party and support for unions.) Robeson frequently performed “Joe Hill” in live concerts, even bringing the song to Carnegie Hall in 1958. Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger frequently performed “Joe Hill” live, and recorded it in 1964 for Songs of Struggle and Protest, 1930-1950. In 1966 folk singer Phil Ochs wrote, recorded, and performed a different version of the story called “The Ballad of Joe Hill” (sung to the folk tune “John Hardy”). And long before her appearance at the Veteran’s Day Rally in 2011, Joan Baez was known for her performances of “Joe Hill”; she performed it live at Woodstock.

Joan Baez sings “Joe Hill” at Woodstock, 1969.

Contemporary musician-activists have kept this song alive. Under the name The Nightwatchman, guitarist and activist Tom Morello (also known for his work with Rage Against the Machine) recorded a version called “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” for his 2011 E.P. Union Town. Morello sings at the bottom of his vocal range, in a gravelly bass. His singing borders on speech. In the tradition of folk music giants such as Bob Dylan, Morello punctuates his performance with a harmonica solo.

In May 2015, backed by an impressive brass and saxophone section, Bruce Springsteen performed “Joe Hill” live in Tampa. “The Boss” adds his own requisite harmonica solo between verses, most of which he sings with his eyes closed.

Bruce Springsteen sings “Joe Hill” in Tampa, May 2014.

The final verses are flush with harmony: back-up singers join Springsteen’s vocals, and more and more band members add their instruments to the growing sound. The effect is metaphorical: when we come together, we are powerful. When we sing together, our voices are stronger and our message is louder.

This is why activists sing.

For Discussion

  1. If you were to write words for a new a protest song, what well-known tune would you set it to? What would the song be like?
  2. Search for the following labor songs on YouTube or similar sites: “Bread and Roses,” “Solidarity,” “Casey Jones,” and “Which Side Are You On?” What are these songs about? What historical events inspired these songs? Are the text and music both original, or is the new text set to an existing tune?

1 Lori Elaine Taylor, “Joe Hill Incorporated: We Own our Past,” in Songs About Work: Essays in Occupational Culture for Richard A. Reuss, edited by Archie Green (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), 25-26.

2 Alicia Ruth Massie-Legg, “Zilphia Horton: a Voice for Change” (Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 2014), 303.

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