Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

Joe Hill and Cisco Houston

Bill Adams

Joe Hill was more than two years dead when Cisco Houston was born in 1918, but Cisco ended up having several things in common with the Swedish immigrant: each man was used to hard labor; each was pro-union and radical politically; each seemed more intellectually gifted than his formal education would account for; each crossed the country by free but dangerous freight train grabbing more than once; each was gifted in singing, playing and songwriting, but found it difficult to make a living by way of music alone; neither had much success with stable relationships with women; each inspired loyal friendships, and each man died too young.

It seems appropriate to tell a little bit of Joe Hill's life story on a Cisco Houston website because Cisco's recordings of two of Joe's best songs are likely to be the definitive versions: Pie in the Sky and The Tramp. Both songs appear on his Folkways LP ", Songs of the Open Road. The most famous Joe Hill composition, "Pie in the Sky" also appears on the CD Cisco Houston: The Folkways Years 1944-1961. Cisco's version of "The Tramp" can be heard on the CD Don't Mourn -- Organize! Songs of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill. Both of those discs are sold by Smithsonian Folkways in commercial releases rather than the customized transfers of original Folkways records which are described elsewhere on this site.

The original title for "Pie" is "The Preacher and the Slave." Joe Hill himself is known today because of the popularity of the 1925 poem "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" which was written by Alfred Hayes. This explains the line, "But Joe, says I, you're ten years dead -- I never died says he, I never died says he." The execution was in 1915. In the 1930's, Earl Robinson put music to the tribute poem, and a few years after that, the great Paul Robeson adopted the song and recorded its definitive version, although the folksingers of the 1960's performed it quite a bit as well. While Joan Baez probably had the best rendition since Robeson's, the true spirit of Joe Hill the man has been personified musically and politically most faithfully by folksinger and story-teller Bruce U. "Utah" Phillips.

Pete Seeger also did a lot to keep Joe Hill's legacy alive by doing several of his songs on record and in concerts from the 1940's onward, but most notably by reciting Joe's last will and testament during nearly every concert he gave in the 1960's. Joe gave this document to a guard at 10 p.m. on Nov. 18th, 1915 in the Salt Lake City prison. Shortly before 8 a.m. the next morning, he died by firing squad. Here it is, in its entirety -- surely one of the best short poems ever written under emotional strain:

My will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide --
My kin don't need to fuss and moan,
Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.
My body?--Oh!--If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you -- -- Joe Hill

In this brief retelling of the saga of Joe Hill, the facts are borrowed from the book "Joe Hill" by Gibbs M. Smith. Originally published in 1969 by University of Utah Press. Reprinted in paperback in 1984 by Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City. Any opinions below are the work of the writer of this particular piece, and not necessarily shared by Mr. Smith. However, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Joe or in the Industrial Workers of the World.

Joel Hagglund was born Oct. 7, 1879 in the town of Gavle, Sweden. It was a large family and a Lutheran one. When Joel was eight, his father, a railroad worker, was injured on the job and died during surgery. Already poor, the family descended into financial crisis. Joel went to work, first in a rope factory and then as a fireman on a steam-powered crane. He caught tuberculosis in his teens, in his skin and joints, but he continued his musical hobby as a singer, violinist and pianist. In 1902 his mother died, and Joel was free to go on his own. With a brother, he came to New York late in 1902. He had the advantage of having already learned to read, write and speak English fluently. He had only 13 years to live when he began his career as a young laborer, willing to go where the jobs were. And from here on until the end, Joel Hagglund obscured his biography and left many gaps between the date of his arrival and the day of his arrest for murder in Utah in January, 1914. His original name vanished, and he became identified as Joe Hillstrom or Joe Hill. We know for sure remarkably little: he worked in Cleveland in 1905. He was employed in San Francisco on the day of the famous earthquake in 1906. He was working in Portland, Oregon in 1910, and spent a few months doing labor on the docks of Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the summer of 1911. Later in 1911, and pretty much continually until 1913, his main area of activity was in San Pedro, California. And in the fall of 1913 he moved to Salt Lake City, hoping to work steadily and raise money to go on to Chicago.

It seems likely that he joined the radical union "Industrial Workers of the World" in 1910. It had been founded five years earlier. By the end of 1911, a song of his, although credited incorrectly to someone else, was printed in the I.W.W.'s songbook. Over the next three years, more and more songs by Joe Hill appeared in the union's publications. Joe seems to have earned his daily bread partly by hard labor, partly by entertaining the workers, and partly by organizing or by strike activities around the nation. The I.W.W. never seems to have advocated violent overthrow of the U.S. government, but members were certainly interested in replacing the capitalist system with a form of socialism led by the working class. In the years before World War I, the union had a large membership of immigrant factory workers, miners, loggers waterfront laborers, and migrant farm harvesters. The dream of the members was the "O.B.U." -- one big union of all industrial workers, rather than unionization on a craft-by-craft basis.

So Joe Hill had some fame within the ranks as his songs of union brotherhood and social satire were learned and sung by the membership -- which reached 100,000 workers at its peak. And then, a grocer and his teenage son were shot to death one January night in 1914 in downtown Salt Lake, and a few days later, Joe Hill was arrested and charged in the crime.

Joe had no proven criminal record before that indictment except for a vagrancy charge in California. However, on the same night the grocer and his son were found dead, Joe had a bullet wound in his torso treated by a doctor five miles away from the store. While being driven to the home in which he stayed by another doctor, Joe threw a pistol out the window of the automobile. A blood trail was found at the murder scene, but lost in the neighborhood. It looked like the dead teen had fired one shot from his own pistol after his father was gunned down, and before one of the two gunmen seen by his younger brother, also working at the store, fatally shot him. The grocer, a former policeman, had been attacked twice before in recent years, and had unknown enemies long before Joe Hill moved to town. The son who survived the encounter could not positively ID Joe Hill as one of the men, but said he was of approximately the same height and build. A woman on the street said pretty much the same thing. In an era in which there was not only no DNA testing, but no blood typing either, and in which forensic police science of all kinds was in its infancy, conclusive proof of Joe's guilt or innocence was not to be found, short of a confession by somebody.

Joe said that his own bullet wound came from a jealous husband, and he would not name the lady: not right after he was charged, and not even to save his life nearly two years later when all his appeals for a new trial were exhausted and a final execution date was looming. He never did have an explanation for tossing away his own pistol. Joe, with no money, had no choice but to represent himself at his preliminary hearing, and did that quite poorly. By the time the trial came, he had some lawyers paid for by his union friends, but they were not the best and brightest and Joe even fired them right in front of the jury. Publically, Joe always maintained his innocence, yet offered little to help himself prove it. His appeals were turned down partly because of the legal rules in Utah at the time. Without any new facts in his favor ever being offered by Joe, grounds for a new trial were insufficient.

The I.W.W. membership and their radical friends around the country rallied to Joe's cause, pressuring the Utah governor to intercede, to order a new trial or free Joe due to the circumstantial nature of the case against him. President Woodrow Wilson asked twice for a postponement of Joe's date with death, and got Utah's agreement the first time. The I.W.W.'s stance was that Joe was framed completely due to his being a threat to the Utah business community as a labor organizer. And if not framed totally, they argued, he was not given a fair trial; and if the trial was fair enough by the standards of the day, then the case was not strong enough to justify the death penalty.

It seems the trial was not very fair by today's measuring, but for 1915 it was not unusally biased, either. There is no credible evidence that "The copper bosses killed you, Joe" as the 1925 poem alleged, and as folk music lovers have wanted to believe. Back then, some said it was a Mormon plot -- but half the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, and two-thirds of the appeals court were non-Mormons. Joe was executed on Nov. 19, 1915. It is true that the majority of people in Utah and in the nation were unsympathetic to the I.W.W., commonly known as "The Wobblies" and felt the union was too extreme. It is true the mainstream newspapers, the only media there was, were prejudiced, too. But Joe Hill was, if he was telling the truth about his wound, the unluckiest man in the world on 1-10-14, for at nearly the same moment that murder was being committed in a store, he was being shot for having been caught with another man's woman. And there were two wounded men traveling around the city at the same time, one of whom escaped, and the other died unfairly for a crime worse than adultery. If Joe's version was the truth, the cheating wife and the betrayed husband each stayed silent and let Joe be executed. And by being executed, Joe became immortal, and a hero to many. And yet, may have been guilty of murdering a father and a son who had done him no known harm.

Joe Hill had a funeral in Salt Lake, then a train to Chicago and a bigger funeral there. His body was cremated and in accordance with his beautiful "Last Will" his ashes were divided and put into packets and sent to I.W.W. union halls all over the world. In the summer of 1916, most of these packets were emptied in fields and from hills and on beaches, but the last known packet survived until 1950, when an aging Wobblie finally scattered the last of Joe to the winds in his own yard. The I.W.W. still exists (singer Utah Phillips is a member) but does not scare anybody anymore. If Joe was a killer, either due to a grudge or in a botched robbery, one assumes that his soul has paid the price. If he was wrongly arrested and convicted, and died to protect the "honor" of a woman who had obigations to another man, may we hope that his posthumous fame and respect was reward enough for his suffering. He left some good songs which survived his own era and the circumstances of their creation, allowing Cisco Houston a chance to sing the heck out of them for the enjoyment of folk fans everywhere.

A Brief Note on Paul Robeson

If a website dedicated to Cisco can hold an essay on Joe Hill then I can send you a note about Paul Robeson. Actually, it's not too far fetched as your item on Hill referred to Robeson so there is a connecting thread.

You probably have heard about the Sydney Opera House but you may not know that the very first concert in the Opera House was given by Paul Robeson. In the late '60s the unions called the tune in this town and Robeson had been invited to address a union conference so he was in Sydney town while the big shed on Bennelong Point was being built.

The construction union(s) saw the opportunity and invited Paul to sing at a lunchtime gathering in the main concert hall, at that time just a mass of concrete decorated with cranes. Needless to say, all work stopped and the hard hats gathered and sat on the bare cement while Robeson took them on a tour of his repertoire.

A couple of years later the building was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II of England and all the penguins listened to Beethoven's 9th but the very first concert was Paul Robeson entertaining the union boys with American music. There is TV film to prove it.

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