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Paul Robeson and Shipyard Workers singing "The Star Spangled Banner" 1942

Paul Robeson and Shipyard Workers singing “The Star Spangled Banner” 1942

It’s a Sunday morning which means a bit of music here on the blog.  I try to have something fitting the day and since we’re in the midst of the Labor Day weekend, I thought I would have something labor related.  It is a holiday celebrating the working classes after all, something we often forget as we rush to get in that last weekend of the summer.  I’ve talked here before about the labor movement and how it transformed the American life.  Almost every right we now take for granted in the workplace was fought for– and I mean fought for— by workers and organizers who banded together to demand better working conditions and higher wages.

There were some important names in the labor movement of the early 20th century but maybe none so polarizing as that of Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant who came to America in 1902 and soon after, as an itinerant laborer,  became involved with the labor movement.  He joined the Industrial Workers of the World — the Wobblies— and wrote  some of the most memorable labor songs of the time, songs which are still played today– The Preacher and the Slave (Pie in the Sky) and There Is Power In a Union.

Hill was working in the silver mine areas of Utah when he was accused of a double murder.  Many believe that Hill was innocent , that the evidence cited did  not line up with the facts of the case, yet he was found guilty.   Many believed that his labor connections were the deciding factor in the guilty verdict.  He was executed by firing squad in 1915.

Hill did little to help himself, remaining silent about a wound that the prosecution claimed was inflicted on him during the murder.  Hill’s fiance later stated that Hill had wrote her from prison, saying that her former lover had shot him.  But Hill seemed to sense that he meant more to the movement as a martyr.

And that is exactly what he became.  He was cremated and his ashes divided into 600 small packets which were distributed around the world by the Wobblies to be cast to the winds.  He has been celebrated in word and song.  The name Joe Hill when spoken still draws the attention of those who know their history.

This is a song , I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night, written in the 1930’s by Earl Robinson and Alfred Hayes.   It is performed by the great Paul Robeson, one of the most interesting people of the last century.  Robeson was a star athlete, a lead actor and  headlining singer– the bright light in any sky he entered.    But more than that, Robeson was a ceaseless champion of the labor and civil rights movements.  If you don’t know much about Robeson, please look him up.

This is a subject that needs more space and time than I have to give today and for that, I apologize.  But please take a listen to the operatic voice of Paul Robeson as he sing about Joe Hill.  And remember what this holiday really means.

 

 

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