Well-researched revelations about the union martyr and prolific protest songwriter.
If Labor Day were a gift-giving occasion, this biography of Joe Hill by freelance writer Adler (Mollie’s Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line, 2000, etc.) would top this year’s holiday list. As the author notes, the man who was executed in 1915 for a murder he didn’t commit now seems “to float with Paul Bunyan and John Henry and Johnny Appleseed in a celestial realm somewhere between fiction and legend.” The Swedish immigrant was complicit in that mythmaking, insisting he defend himself against charges of killing a grocer (where there was no motive or evidence tying him to the scene), then offering little defense and finally demanding a new trial rather than settling for the pardon he might well have received (his thousands of advocates included President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller). But somewhere during his incarceration, Hill decided that he was worth more to the labor movement dead than alive. He refused to explain the only evidence against him, a gunshot wound suffered on the night of the crime, most likely inflicted by a friend who had been engaged to a woman they both coveted; her letter explaining the details is one of the keys unearthed by the Adler’s five years of research. Hill’s story remains inextricably linked with that of the IWW—the International Workers of the World (or “Wobblies”)—notorious as America’s most radical union of the early 20th century. Not only did it embrace the foreign and unskilled, but rather than campaigning for better wages, it urged the abolishment of the wage system. Yet what ultimately distinguished the Wobblies was their celebration of “the power of song” in galvanizing a movement. While the Wobblies are a dim memory, and Hill has become better known through a song eulogizing him than any he wrote, he remains a seminal influence on musical activism from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger through Bob Dylan.
Stronger in research than storytelling, Adler reveals the man beneath the myth, detailing the life that spawned the legend.