Wednesday, May 25, 2011

As we come to the end of the course, we reach Joe Hill, a name often mentioned in class. For an overview, go (of course) to wikipedia: (Be sure to look at the section "influences and tributes" to get a sense of the impact his case continues to have.)

Even people who don't know anything about the IWW or labor histiory may know his name because of a poem that was turned into a song: I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night. There are many versions. Here is one by Joan Baez who sings it regularly at her concerts. Read some of the comments on this site; some are strongly anti-union and may give you a different sense of their role in America. (There is also a much longer song about Joe Hill done by Phil Ochs and re-recorded by Bill Bragg which you can find on youtube. Ochs was a major figure in the folk revival in the 1960s and wrote some amazing songs.)

Finally Bob Dylan, in Chronicles Volume One, says that he was deeply moved by the story of Joe Hill -- he includes a 3 page summary of the case in the book which he wrote and which is fairly accurate -- but didn't think it was a good song. He thought it was "preachy and one-dimensional... [In protest songs] you have to show people a side of themselves that they don't know is there. The song 'Joe Hill' doesn't even come close, but if there ever was someone who could inspire a song, it was him. Joe had the light in his eyes." Dylan says he thought about writing a song about Joe Hill. One version would have been titled "Scatter My Ashes Anyplace but Utah" and that line would have been the refrain. He thought about another version using the approach of "Long Black Veil" (a great song) and even thought that "'Long Black Veil' seemed like it could have been a song written by Joe Hill himself, his last one." In the end, Dylan didn't write a Joe Hill song -- but he is only 70 and there is still time.....

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