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Joe Hill (1879 – 1915), born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund and also known as Joseph Hillström, was a Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly called the “Wobblies”) which he joined in 1910 when working on the docks in San Pedro, California. A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s, while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco. Hill, an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the union. His most famous songs include “The Preacher and the Slave” (in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky”), “The Tramp”, “There Is Power in a Union”, “The Rebel Girl”, and “Casey Jones—the Union Scab”, which express the harsh and combative life of itinerant workers, and call for workers to organize their efforts to improve working conditions
He rose in the IWW organization and traveled widely, organizing workers under the IWW banner, writing political songs and satirical poems, and making speeches. He shortened his pseudonym to “Joe Hill” as the pen-name under which his songs, cartoons and other writings appeared. His songs frequently appropriated familiar melodies from popular songs and hymns of the time.
In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men. The same evening, Hill arrived at a doctor’s office with a gunshot wound, and briefly mentioned a fight over a woman. He refused to explain further, even after he was accused of the grocery store murders on the basis of his injury. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates, and international calls for clemency from high-profile figures and workers’ organizations, Hill was executed in November 1915. After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry.
The identity of the woman and the rival who supposedly caused Hill’s injury, though frequently speculated upon, remained mostly conjecture for nearly a century. William M. Adler’s 2011 biography of Hill presents information about a possible alibi, which was never introduced at the trial. According to Adler, Hill and his friend and countryman Otto Appelquist were rivals for the attention of 20-year-old Hilda Erickson, a member of the family with whom the two men were lodging. In a recently discovered letter, Erickson confirmed her relationship with the two men and the rivalry between them. The letter indicates that when she first discovered Hill was injured, he explained to her that Appelquist had shot him, apparently out of jealousy.
“There Is Power in a Union” is a song written by Joe Hill in 1913. The Wobblies concentrated on organizing migrant workers in lumber and construction camps. They sometimes had competition for the attention of the workers from religious organizations. The song uses the tune of Lewis E. Jones’ 1899 hymn “There Is Power in the Blood (Of the Lamb)”. “There Is Power in a Union” was first published in the Little Red Songbook in 1913.
The song has been recorded many times, but Joe Hill’s song should not be confused with the Irish singer Billy Bragg’s song “There is power in a union” which has different words and a different melody.
“There is Power in a Union” by Joe Hill
Would you have freedom from Wage slavery,
Then join in the grand Industrial band;
Would you from mis’ry and hunger be free,
Then come, do your share, like a man.
There is pow’r there is pow’r in a band of workingmen,
When they stand hand in hand,
That’s a pow’r, that’s a pow’r
That must rule in every land—
One Industrial Union Grand.
Would you have mansions of gold in the sky,
and live in a shack, way in the back?
Would you have wings up in heaven to fly,
And starve here with rags on your back?
If you’ve had ’nuff of the “blood of the lamb”
Then join in the grand industrial band;
If, for a change, you would have eggs and ham,
Then come, do your share, like a man.
If you like sluggers to beat off your head,
Then don’t organize, all unions despise.
If you want nothing before you are dead,
Shake hands with your boss and look Wise.
Come, all ye workers, from every land,
Come, join in the grand industrial band;
Then we our share of this earth shall demand.
Come on! Do your share, like a man.