Wobbly, the Rough-And-Tumble Story of An American Radical

By Ralph Chaplin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 16. JOE HILL FACES THE
FIRING SQUAD

I NEVER set eyes on Joe Hill alive. But my interest in the young rebel songwriter and his work was profound and of long standing. The fact that my "Solidarity Forever" was printed next to "Casey Jones" and "Long Haired Preachers" in the Little Red Song Book of the I.W.W. gave me a certain sense of spiritual kinship. Were we not fellow-workers in the world of proletarian song? All I knew was that his full name was Joseph Hillstrom, that he lived in California, worked at odd jobs, and wrote poems or drew pictures in his spare time. That gave Joe Hill a twofold claim on my imagination, or a threefold claim, if his status as a migratory worker was included. I talked with dozens of I.W.W. boys who had shipped out with Joe Hill for various construction jobs around San Pedro. To them he was just another stiff. It was difficult to get any further information.

But to me it seemed obvious that the saga of an itinerant laborer whose songs were sung all over the world was something worth recording. I had long wanted to get that story down on paper so it could be printed in Solidarity and the Review. Then Joe Hill was arrested in Utah on a murder charge, and newspapers all over the country warmed up to the famous "Joe Hill Case."

It was at Cleveland in the little saloon where we used to stop for beer and sandwiches after taking Solidarity over to the post office. It was close to midnight. We had loaded the heavy bags on our backs to beat the deadline. An I.W.W. lake seaman tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving and asked me if I wanted to get the full story of Joe Hill's life. "Joe's cousin is here," he said. "His name is John Holland. Buy him a drink, and he'll tell all." I was at once skeptical and delighted—scarcely willing to believe that such good luck could be possible.

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