Sociology Index

Joe Hill

The Words, Music and Influence of Joe Hill - By Mary Killebrew

"Workers of the world awaken. Break your chains, demand your rights. All the wealth you make is taken, by exploiting parasites.
Shall you kneel in deep submission from your cradle to your grave. Is the height of your ambition to be a good and willing slave?"

The music of Joe Hill was a uniting force that captured the spirit of the radical Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor movement.

Modern students of music history have identified Hill as one the most influential protest artists in American history, an influence that can be heard in the work of songwriters as diverse as Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.

Hill's firsthand experience with working conditions led him to membership in the I.W.W. in 1910. Almost at once he started writing songs to unite a working class that was fractured into ineffective pieces over language and cultural differences.

Using the music of popular hymns and tunes, Hill added lyrics that soon were sweeping through labor picket lines throughout the nation. Hill's 1910 song, Workers of the world awaken was a call to action.

"It's not great poetry and that may not be great art," explains Weber State University Professor and Hill researcher John Sillito, "but it pretty well gives you the ideological version of the I.W.W's account of early twentieth century corporate capitalism."

Joe Hill set the passion of idealism and rebellion to music. His work laid a foundation for generations of future activists who would seek to express political, social and/or economic vision for change in song. Recognition of that legacy came at Woodstock in 1969 through the voice of another widely recognized singer and songwriter. Joan Baez focused on the controversial war still raging in Vietnam on that summer evening. Baez offered a song about an individual, his spirit and his determination to speak out. The song was poet Alfred Hayes' "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill."