A Note on Joe Hill

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Joe Hill/Franklin Rosemont

By Paul Buhle

Franklin Rosemont’s Joe Hill, appearing in 2003 from the venerable Charles H. Kerr Company (best known as publisher of revolutionary socialist books and the International Socialist Review magazine, way back in the 1910s), and reprinted in 2015 by PM Press, should be remembered as leading example of an autodidact author’s treatment of a great American martyr. So I mean to write about the writer as well as the subject.

Amid the artistic-political fringe of the Chicago Left from the middle 1960s until his death, Rosemont inherited the rich legacy of the IWW autodidacts (the “Hobo College”) and their successors in the Dil Pickle Club and the College of Complexes, running into the end of the 1950s. It was a working class, rebel bohemianism, loosely attached to Blues, Jazz, Studs Terkel and a string of radical personalities, notably if not only literary ones, Richard Wright and Nelson Algren among them. Rosemont himself, son of a Typographers’ Union leader who guided the famed 1949 Chicago newspaper strike, grew up and lived within this world, knew the aging Wobbly officers and local members of the 1950s-60s intimately, and took over the Kerr Company from the Proletarian Party and a successor who had kept it going, if barely, since the IWW decline. The other books published by the Kerr Company, from the 1980s, dealt heavily in that unique Chicago history, a significant chunk of midwesternisms little understood “East of the Hudson,” in New York literary circles.

Like Johnny Appleseed, another enigmatic American radical icon, Joe Hill is known mostly by reputation. A Swedish immigrant and Wobbly enthusiast, he rambled, he wrote immortal song lyrics satirizing capitalism and calling for rebellion and…he died a martyr, to a Utah government firing squad. Of the intimate details of Hill’s life, precious little was recorded or has been recovered, perhaps because he gloried at being a rank-and-filer or perhaps because he kept a fairly low profile. Did he refuse to save himself from a false murder charge by assuring his lover (someone else’s wife) that she should not testify to his presence during the crime? We’ll never know.

For Rosemont, these kinds of details miss the main point. The old IWW, epitomized and thematized by Hill in his songs and his attitude toward existing laws, contained a working class culture of its very own, outside the bounds of capitalist rules but also outside the bounds of nearly anything else on the Left. Hill and the Wobs refused the very logic of production and consumption under the wage system. They did not see contemporary capitalism, advancing into every corner of life, as promoting progress toward anything, and in that way, Hill stood miles apart from the mainstream of the Second International and most contemporary assumptions of socialists. In our current moment of ecological catastrophe, the case can be argued again.

But there is something more to be said in the Hill’s use of humor to attack the system--the IWW’s adoption of popular culture, vaudeville music to contemporary comic strip styles--as a way to reach ordinary folks. We do not need to imagine what a modern Joe Hill would do with social media, because so many of the facebook political postings during the last year have been so funny and so insightful. My own thoughts went back to Joe Hill when, in Wisconsin of 2011-12, rank and file jokers brought new funny signs to the massive demonstrations day after day, ridiculing conservatives but also conservative union leaders, and accepting congratulation on all sides for coming up with fresh gags.

We need more Joe Hills in the socialist present and future but, with luck, and with bright young socialists bitterly hostile toward capitalism and its politicians, we may have them.

Paul Buhle has turned to publishing comics during the last decade but his many books include It Started In Wisconsin, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle: A Documentation of Our Struggle.


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