Jay Meehan: Joe Hill Centennial
"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
~ From the John Ford film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"
Coming from Irish immigrant stock tied to the mining and smelting labor unions of the Silver Valley of the panhandle of Idaho, if I’d have been paying attention, I might have overheard, at a very early age, dining room table discourse at my grandparent’s house concerning the mythological life and death of Swedish immigrant, labor organizer, and troubadour Joe Hill.
It would be the Folk Music Renaissance of the 1960s in general and the music of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Dave Van Ronk in particular, however, especially when coupled with balladry such as "I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night," that served to pique my interest in the radical labor history of the West.
So, upon moving to Utah during the late summer of 1970, I made it my business to learn many of the actual Salt Lake Valley locations surrounding the murder for which Joe Hill (Joseph Hillstrom born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund) was convicted and executed, forever becoming a martyr to the left.
The corner of 8th South and West Temple, where the grocery store murder took place, and Sugar House Park, the then-site of the Utah State Prison where Hill’s sentence to die at the hands of a firing squad was carried out on Nov. 19, 1915, were the first to be committed to memory.
But the thought that we were in the throes of the Joe Hill Centennial year of 2015 and that there were attendant celebrations afoot never actually creased my consciousness until I stumbled upon a stack of posters a week or so back while wandering the sacred aisles of Ken Sanders Rare Books in downtown Salt Lake City.
Indeed, there is a Joe Hill Organizing Committee who have put together a day-long Joe Hill Centennial Celebration set for Sept. 5, during which we of the left will no doubt march and sing and, donning "ljust mellanblå" (light middleblue) and "guldgult" (golden yellow), become, in a quirky take on St. Patrick’s Day, Swedish for a day.
In that Hill’s dying wish to his supporters was "Don’t mourn, organize!" the fact that his current flock took it upon themselves to do just that in his honor should come as no surprise — nor the fact that the site of the centennial celebration should take place in the city of his execution.
Movement-wise, Salt Lake and Utah will never fulfill the total penance assigned to it by us ardent wanna-be-Wobblies (members of the radical Workers of the World labor union) for what we consider a sham trial and ensuing execution.
At this stage, however, most of us who could actually care less that Hill’s myth couldn’t possibly reflect the real person who, no doubt, had more than a semblance of violence in his past.
No, with us, it’s much more about the myth of the songwriter, union organizer, traveling troubadour who stopped for a spell in Park City prior to spending his final tumultuous months down in the valley below.
My education on the matter really took root once the late Paul Swenson, then editor of Utah Holiday Magazine, began stopping by my late-night radio show at KMOR bearing gifts such as the Utah Phillips "Good Though!" album and stories of Irish-American pacifist, Christian anarchist, social activist, and Wobbly, Ammon Hennacy.
Hennacy, with the help of his singing disciple, the aforementioned Bruce "Utah" Phillips, it seemed, had established the "Joe Hill House of Hospitality" where hobos passing through Salt Lake could always find a welcoming hand, hot meal, an acoustic-guitar accompanied sing-a-long, plus a sleeping cot and warm blanket for the night.
Phillips, also a Wobbly, ran for U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968 and would go on to gain cult fame through recordings of the hobo and railroad life such as "Daddy, What’s a Train," "Queen of the Rails," and the hilarious "Moose Turd Pie!"
What the organizing committee would like to see those of us of a similarly celebratory disposition do, I suppose, is to save the date of Sept. 5, 2015, so as to not miss out on this quite auspicious day-long Joe Hill Centennial Celebration. And that would be why I’m broaching the subject in this space some 5-plus months ahead of said gathering.
Hope to see you there! And don’t forget to sport some "ljust mellanblå" and "guldgult!"
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.
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