I am the sort of person that prefers time divided up into centuries. All the same, sometimes 1911 seems long ago and a whole world away. Last night, I was lucky enough to encounter Joe Hill before the blues.
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
There are women of many descriptions
In this queer world, as everyone knows.
Some are living in beautiful mansions,
And are wearing the finest of clothes.
There are blue blooded queens and princesses,
Who have charms made of diamonds and pearl;
But the only and thoroughbred lady
Is the Rebel Girl.
This song was written for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an iconic IWW suffragette. It was, of course, to be found in Zinn’s Peoples’ History of America, where I discovered entire generations of rebels and poets. Hill wrote dozens of songs to buck up the roaring revolutionary spirit of the early 1900s, a spirit our age has all but lost to cynicism and the internet- not an altogether bad trade, one could argue, but those are the blues talking. Most of them are uneven-certainly the rest of Rebel Girl is no lyrical wonder. Hill was far more than a songwriter, though, he was a bard in the last generations to have had minstrels proper, before the talkies and television.
The many folk songs he promoted/wrote/gathered were a vital conduit from an oral culture to a recording one, and have survived all the way to the digital century. The Grateful Dead would recycle (and reinterpret for acidheads) one of them in the folk-revival: Casey Jones, the story of a heroic railway engineer who died alone trying to prevent a train crash. They also recorded the traditional ballad Hill would’ve strummed (I’ve included a Johnny Cash version of the ballad at the end of this post). Hill himself has been the muse for many later folk-greats, from Dylan to Baez, and they have made his controversial death the stuff of legend
When encountered with his own mortality, Hill has only this to say-
My body? – Oh. – If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow
Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again
I wonder, if he had found a Decca Mitford, would we be faced with the unlikely American who out-romillied Romilly? I’ll take a bard over a journalist any day.