Songwriter, cartoonist, Industrial Workers of the World union organizer and martyr Joe Hill is a looming figure in revolutionary labor history. Hill is an icon of witty protest and the ultimate example of how far the employing class is willing to go in silencing working-class voices, as he was framed and executed in Utah in 1915, while organizing mine workers.
Since his death, Hill’s face and songs have risen to mythic status in the labor movement. His final words — “Don’t waste any time mourning, organize!” — now read like sacred secular text. But amid the hero worship and iconography, the actual man was lost.
In 2003, labor activist and writer Franklin Rosemont set out to change that with his book, Joe Hill: The IWW & the Making of a Revolutionary Workingclass Counterculture. Released by the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, Rosemont’s book separates facts from fiction and describes, in great detail, Hill’s incredible influence on generations of creative, revolutionary labor agitators. While the actual details of Hill’s life are scant, his inspirational reach echoes through the decades, from beat poets to eco-justice warriors.
Industrial Worker recently spoke with Tamara L. Smith, secretary and treasurer at Kerr. Smith knew Rosemont, who died in 2009, and helped him research his book. The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.
Industrial Worker: Can you tell us a little about Franklin Rosemont?
Tamara L. Smith: Franklin was a surrealist poet and painter, as well as a labor historian. He and his spouse Penelope and others co-founded the Chicago Surrealist Group in 1966. His interest in labor probably originated with his parents, who were both union members. His mother was a jazz musician, and his father was a member of Chicago Typographical Union No. 16 — which happened to be the same shop as that of Albert Parsons, whose spouse Lucy helped found the IWW.
Because of his surrealist outlook, Franklin loved pointing out those kinds of connections, something he does throughout the book. Franklin was likely drawn to Hill because they shared a passion for revolutionary labor organizing. Franklin was a member of the IWW all of his adult life.
Hill had been a figure in Franklin’s consciousness long before he wrote the book. Writing it entailed a process of bringing together a lot of information Franklin had amassed about Hill over many years and doing extensive research to fill in gaps of knowledge, where possible.
What was your role in helping Rosemont with the book?
Many folks contributed to the book as a labor of love. I did some research, obtained some books and articles that Franklin had a hard time getting, scanned and formatted texts he wanted to quote, and proofread and copy-edited the manuscript. Franklin credited me with helping resolve some technical issues, but after all these years, I don’t remember what they were.
Is the book more a biography of Joe Hill or a history of the IWW and 20th-century labor counterculture?
The book is an expansive biography that uses the facts of Hill’s life as a framework on which to hang broader discussions of both the IWW and 20th-century labor counterculture. Franklin started with the story of Hill, but like a skilled jazz musician, played meandering riffs on Hill’s impact on multiple aspects of popular culture and counterculture, always returning to the backbeat of Hill’s life.
Hill was executed in 1915. Why do you think he’s still relevant today?
Hill captured people’s imagination with his aphorisms, songs and cartoons. Using popular cultural forms allowed Hill’s ideas to find broad purchase in his day and across time. What English speaker today doesn’t know his phrase “pie in the sky?” He conveyed revolutionary ideas in down-to-earth language relatable to anyone who has ever had to work to survive. His example tells us that revolution won’t be carried forward by dry theoretical treatises alone. We need to express our revolutionary desires in plain talk, and with music and humor.
If Hill were alive today, what do you think he would be doing?
I think he would use all means at his disposal to get the ideas of the IWW across. And he might still get killed for it.