Joe Hill, or Mayday with the Wobblies
Lucius Papyrius, May 1, 2020·3 min read
Born in Sweden, in 1879, as Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, he and his brother Paul Elias moved to the United States in 1902. There, he lived as an itinerant worker, going where he could find work and facing periods of unemployment. In 1910, as he worked the docks in San Pedro, CA, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), commonly referred to as Wobblies, an international labour union established in Chicago in 1905. He, then, spent the next few years travelling the country, helping workers organize in unions and writing songs of protest. In early 1914, Joe Hill was working near Salt Lake City, UT, when a grocer and his son were killed in their store by a couple of armed intruders. Although the evidence pointed to Joe’s innocence and despite a large mobilization of the people in favour of his acquittal, he was nonetheless sentenced to death by firing squad, which took place in late 1915. This leads us to conclude that his condemnation was motivated by a desire to silence his activism for the rights of workers.
One of the most notorious songs by Joe Hill is The Preacher and the Slave, written probably around 1910 or 1911, during the time of his early activity in the IWW. This song is a parody of the religious hymn In the Sweet By-and-By, written and composed by S. F. Bennett and J. P. Webster in 1868. The subject of the song is how religion and its ministers use the people’s faith — their fear of God and the promise of a better life in Heaven — as a mean to keep them obedient and servile under the yoke of their oppression.
Let us enjoy a rather recent interpretation of this song by synthpop creator Intellectual Dark Wave (video at the bottom):
Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right
But when asked how ‘bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:
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
(That’s a lie)
And the Starvation Army, they play
And they sing and they clap and they pray
Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum:
Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
And they holler, they jump and they shout
Give your money to Jesus, they say
He will cure all diseases today.
If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell
When you die you will sure go to hell.
Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grifters we’ll sing this refrain:
You will eat, bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and how to fry
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good
Then you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.
(That’s no lie)
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