Joe Hill’s Last Will by John McCuthcheon, Appalsongs
On November 19, 1915, a Swedish immigrant, Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah, charged with murdering a grocer.
That event might be long forgotten, except that immigrant was better known for his anglicized name, “Joe Hill.”
An Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union members, Joe had a gift -- he took popular songs and hymns and composed new lyrics, hoping to inspire his fellow workers and spark not only spirit, but indignation and some fun along the way.
The IWW were popularly known as “Wobblies,” a grass-roots and militant union movement that openly displayed its antagonism to capitalism and strong working class “bottom up” views.
Folk singer Jon McCutcheon breathes new lives into these songs, many sung on picket lines, union rallies and folk concerts through the years.
The century-old language and terminology sometimes takes a little effort to understand, but the spirit certainly doesn’t.
Rather than simply relying on a guitar or banjo to carry the tune, McCutcheon picks it all up with some jazzy takes, invoking everything from New Orleans Dixieland to the Celtic tradition. The listener can hear these songs anew and catch the vibrant and rebellious spirit they were written in.
The IWW’s membership often included transient workers, whether in construction, forests and timber mills or farm laborers. These easy to remember songs reflect that itinerant life, an easy way to pass on lessons about recalcitrant bosses and boost union spirits.
Whether its mocking strike-breakers in Casey Jones the Union Scab or noting how a strategically misplaced tool can slow down a speed up in The Wooden Shoe, there are simple but clear lessons here.
Some music derived from hymns is satirical, but august tunes can also be clarion calls to union solidarity.
Joe Hill became a labor martyr a century ago, but his voice is still fresh, thanks to McCutcheon’s new CD.