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Labor activist-singer Joe Hill brought humor, hope to the fight

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2011

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Legendary songwriter and union activist Joe Hill, who died in 1915 at the hands of a firing squad, seems as relevant today as ever. With historically high unemployment, plummeting union membership, and a political system in which corporate money talks louder than ever, unions and workers are on the defensive, trying to hold on to gains they made decades ago. Earlier this year in Wisconsin and Ohio, for example, legislation passed that restricted collective bargaining rights of public unions, and other states are following suit. As this splendid, sympathetic biography makes clear, Joe Hill spent his life on the run from the dark realities of capitalism, but Hill’s true genius was his refusal to surrender to despair.

William M. Adler’s biography is truly a “life and times’’ of the labor activist and his union, the Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W. or “Wobblies’’). Hill, raised in Sweden, where his railroad-worker father died from injuries sustained in an industrial accident, started working at age 8 and, as a teenager, nearly died from tuberculosis. To say that Hill lived a hard life would be an understatement. Adler shows that Hill used two strategies to fight despair: music and humor. When he arrived in the United States and joined the I.W.W., then the nation’s most embattled union, Hill wrote songs that weren’t just scathing attacks on the brutalities of capitalism, or calls for workers to protest, but were also hilarious and hope-fueled.

Hill’s songs, lampooning “robber baron’’ industrialists, union scabs, and anti-union politicians, were sung in union halls, and during street protests and strikes. “His songs were so popular,’’ writes Adler, “because of his singular talent for boiling down complex social and economic issues into darkly funny parodies.’’ In “Casey Jones - the Union Scab,’’ for example, Hill humorously shows a worker (Jones) refusing to join a railroad strike and then falling to a fiery death when his train isn’t properly maintained. When Jones gets to heaven, Hill writes that he “went scabbing on the angels’’ and gets shipped off to the devil because “that’s what you get for scabbing.’’

In “The Preacher and the Slave,’’ Hill sardonically assaulted the insufficiency and moralizing tendencies of private charities like the Salvation Army, who tell the starving jobless to simply have faith in God and capitalism and “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die.’’ Adler does a fine job exploring the socialist philosophy and “direct action’’ tactics of the I.W.W., and also shows how companies and local governments hit back with systematic anti-union repression. In western cities like Spokane, San Diego, and Fresno, the I.W.W. organized workers and faced brutal reprisals from police and company-sponsored thugs. But their nonviolent protest tactics worked: Mass arrests flooded the jails, “soaked taxpayers, swamped the police, and engulfed the courts,’’ writes Adler. Whether in jail or on the streets, union demonstrators were singing Joe Hill’s songs.

In the end, Hill was arrested in Utah on murder charges, convicted on circumstantial evidence alone (during a trial of dubious fairness), and later executed. Adler meticulously examines the legal proceedings and makes a powerful case that Hill was railroaded by prosecutors intent on destroying him for his association with the hated Wobblies. Adler even finds new evidence that strongly supports Hill’s alibi. Though Hill died young, Adler shows that his sardonic, resilient voice of political protest lived, leaving a powerful influence on folk singers such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. “In death,’’ writes Adler, “Joe Hill entered the pantheon of martyred American folk heroes.’’

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

THE MAN WHO NEVER DIED: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

By William M. Adler

Bloomsbury, 448 pp. $28