William M. Adler on Joe Hill, the man who never died

Joe Hill ain't dead," he says to me, Joe Hill ain't never died. Where working men are out on strike Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side.

--Joan Baez

At first glance, it might seem that nearly 100 years after songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World union organizer Joe Hill's death, his struggle might be a tad dated. Unapologetically leftist and standing tall for the common working man, Hill and the Wobblies could now seem naïve, tragic heroes trying to buck the Wall Street big-shots and establish a powerful new class of the downtrodden. Oh wait. What about Wisconsin?

You can make your own decision after reading Denver author William M. Adler's new biography, The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, which not only tells the martyred union man's story (he was famously executed in 1915 after being accused of a murder some say he never committed), but includes a revelation or two.

Adler is just one of the attractions at this weekend's Joe Hill Festival, hosted by the Bread and Roses Workers' Cultural Center and regional chapters of the IWW, and beginning tonight at the Mercury Cafe. We caught up with Adler to ask him a few questions about the people's hero of yore.  

Westword: What inspired your interest in Joe Hill?

William M. Adler: I was reading Bob Dylan's memoir shortly after it came out in 2005, and he devotes three pages where he talks about Joe Hill's influence on Woody Guthrie. He said that if Hill was a forerunner of Woody Guthrie's, that's all he needed to know. But I needed to know a bit more. I was also attracted to the whodunit nature of his story. And another thing fascinating to me is how this was a largely unexplored period of American history. It's the closest Americans had come to an actual class war.

How is Joe Hill relevant today?

A lot of the issues Joe Hill was fighting for are still with us today: the income equality and callous disregard for health insurance. People have been fighting against those things for a long time. Joe Hill stood for the concept of solidarity of working people. In a time when other states are stripping public workers of their collective bargaining rights, we can learn from what the IWW went through. There are many similarities with those times: The economy was rapidly changing, there was a lot of brand-new technology, it was a rising era of capitalism. In a way, we're right back there again.

You say you've uncovered evidence that could exonerate Joe Hill of the murder of a butcher during a botched robbery attempt.

First of all, not everyone knows that Joe Hill was shot on the same night as the grocery store owner who was murdered. It was then alleged that he was shot by the son of the grocer, but the evidence was said to be circumstantial. No one could ever ID Joe Hill, and there was no motive or murder weapon ever found. Hill told a physician who was treating him that he'd been shot in a row with a friend over a woman, but he never named the woman or the friend. But 35 years later, the woman in question came forward and wrote a letter to researcher Aubrey Haan, who was then gathering material for a book about Hill. The book was never published, but her notes remained in an attic in Michigan. My research led me to her survivors, and her daughter went into the attic and found a trove of material. That was a holy cow moment! In there, she detailed how he came to be shot.

How do Joe Hill's songs stand up over decades?

He was not a classic songwriter. He never performed, but his songs, which were written and intended to be sung en masse, were mainly topical and satirical. Sometimes satire doesn't wear very well. Some hold up, but mostly satire written in the crucible of the time wouldn't work that well now. But if Joe Hill were around now, I'm sure he would be out there still, writing modern material.

Do you have a favorite Joe Hill song?

There's a song, "The Preacher and the Slave," that contains what is probably his most famous lyric, which actually helped coin the phrase "pie in sky." It goes like this:

You will eat, by and by, In that glorious land above the sky Work and pray, live on hay -- You'll get pie in the sky when you die -- that's a lie!

In addition to appearances at the Joe Hill Festival, Adler will sign the book next week at the Boulder Book Store and the Tattered Cover Colfax. Visit his website for more information.

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