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Joe Hill 100 Road Show Tour Conducts Concerts in Three Dozen Cities

By Ron Kaminkow - January 25, 2016

On November 19th, 1915 a poor Swedish immigrant was executed by firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah. And while his legal assassination was protested worldwide and his name was briefly a household word 100 years ago, today most people have never heard the name of this migrant worker, hobo, union organizer, song writer, satirist and agitator. But throughout the course of 2015 – 100 years after his execution – dozens of concerts, plays, sing alongs and other gatherings were conducted across the United Sates in remembrance of this man “who never died” – Joe Hill.

The Joe Hill Road Show 100 Tour was an ambitious effort to bring the words, music and ideas of Joe Hill to the people. In some three dozen performances around the country – starting in Chicago on May 1 (International Workers’ Day) and ending in Salt Lake City the day after his execution – crowds were treated to renditions of Joe’s songs as performed by a series of different musicians. While some of the crowds were small and others large, all shows on the tour were spirited events with lots of audience participation, enthusiasm, and laughter, all infused with the spirit of labor solidarity.

Performers at the various shows included a number of professional travelling musicians, others regionally based, as well as local talent, invited up on stage to join in the fun. Some of the musicians included: Anne Feeney, Mark Ross, Bucky Halker, George Mann, J.P. Wright, Marc Revenson (Lil’ Rev), Tim Gorelanton, Patrick Dodd, David Rovics, Duncan Phillips, Otis Gibbs, Charlie King, Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino of “Magpie,” Jan Hammarlund, and Chris Chandler.  Joining them in at least three cities, the Labor Chorus in each added another dimension, a unique element to these shows, one that encouraged group singing. They performed in union halls, taverns, community centers, concert halls, churches, and even in an old wooden boxcar by the railroad tracks in Northern California. Shows took place in 18 states in the following towns and cities: Chicago and Batavia, IL; Madison, Milwaukee, Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Green Bay, WI; St. Paul, MN; Indianapolis, IN; Washington, DC; Baltimore, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Ithaca, NY; Schenectady, and New York, NY; Barre, VT; Springfield and Cambridge, MA; Louisville and Lexington, KY; Nashville and Knoxville, TN; Atlanta, GA; San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nevada City and Weed, CA; Reno, NV; Phoenix, Eugene and Portland, OR; Bellingham, WA and Salt Lake City, UT. Additional commemorative events not sponsored by the Joe Hill 100 group were held in numerous other locales including Denver, CO and Oakland, CA.

So why all the fuss over an itinerant immigrant, shot to death 100 years ago? If Joe had been a loner, just another one of millions of isolated and destitute workingmen around the turn of the 20th century, he would have certainly died in obscurity. But Joe Hill (born Joel Emmanuel Haaglund), quickly assimilated to his new environment in the US, refused to be treated unfairly, joined the union that at that time was organizing unskilled transient workers (the Industrial Workers of the World) and found his voice. And what a voice that turned out to be! Joe composed hundreds of songs, never asked a penny for his services, and donated all of his works – songs, poems, cartoons – to the workers of the world to use as they saw fit to fight the class struggle. Workers from “San Diego up to Maine in every mine and mill” were soon singing Joe’s songs at work, on the picket line, on the street corners, on the soap box and in the jails. Yes, wherever workers would “strike and organize” that would be where you would hear the songs of Joe Hill.

Joe had been assigned by the IWW to assist in the organizing of copper miners and mill workers in Utah in the winter of 1914 when he was picked up by the police on a murder charge. Despite a hostile and conservative judge, the lack of an impartial jury, the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, the existence of suspects far more likely to have motive for the murder and the contradictory testimony of witnesses, Joe was convicted of a crime he did not commit and was sentenced to death. Countless celebrities, dignitaries and high level politicians pled for his clemency, but to no avail. Joe was shot at dawn on November 19, 1915. A dedicated agitator to the bitter end, on his last night in prison Joe would wire Bill Haywood, General Secretary-Treasurer of the union, the immortal words: “Don’t waste time mourning, organize!” And ever the humorist, despite his pending demise, Joe would write, “It’s a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange for my body to be hauled to the state line to be buried? Don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” As such, his body was transported to the union’s headquarters in Chicago, IL, where a funeral procession of 30,000 workers would parade through downtown in one of the largest funeral processions the city had ever seen. Joe’s ashes, per his “last and final” will, would be parceled out by the union and mailed to workers all over the world to be scattered to the four winds.

While the Joe Hill 100 Road Show concerts included labor standards like “Solidarity Forever” and “Dump the Bosses Off Your Back,” the core of each show focused on Joe’s work, among them: “Casey Jones the Union Scab,” “The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky),” “Mr. Block” and “There is Power in a Union.” In addition, some shows featured the labor music of modern-day artists, a short play, a poetry recitation, or even a brass marching band. At many shows, song sheets were distributed to the audience to facilitate their participation. Each show was unique and had its own mood and vibe. But what they all shared was a celebration – not just of Joe Hill’s life and work – but of his ideas and his creed: international working class solidarity, universal brotherhood, hope, struggle, revolution and the “One Big Union.”

To learn more about the life, work and music of Joe Hill, please see the website, a boundless resource complete with a history, bibliography, available merchandise, a listing of centenary events, words to many of Joe’s songs, photos, videos, and more.