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GET UP, STAND UP: The Story of Pop and Protest Revolutionary Music
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The Preacher and the Slave
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Writer: Joe Hill
Year: 1911
Genre: Traditional
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The Preacher and the Slave -- ''You'll get pie in the sky when you die''

Joe Hill
By Ed Ward

In the early 1960s, the hub of New York's folk scene was a tiny shop on Macdougal Street, the Folklore Center. In the front were books and records and a few instruments hanging high up on the wall; in the back was a small room where folksingers gathered. And presiding over all of it was Israel G. "Izzy" Young, who encouraged new singers and helped them find songs. Not just any ditties, of course; Izzy was more interested in songs of social activism.

The Topical Songs bin in the shop was so crammed it was hard to browse. There were songbooks of civil rights songs, Bob Dylan songs, songs of the striking Kentucky miners, antiapartheid songs from South Africa, and, in profusion, copies of the cheapest book in the house, the LITTLE RED SONGBOOK, published by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a half century earlier. These were the songs that inspired Woody Guthrie's music, just as his songs inspired that of a new generation. And a lot of them were by a guy named Joe Hill.

Joe Hill poster
Hill's actual name was Joel Hägglund, although he may have entered the United States under the name Hillström. Born in 1879 into extreme poverty in rural Sweden, orphaned in his teens, scarred by radiation treatments for tuberculosis, he came to this country in 1902 with a younger brother and promptly disappeared until his name began to appear on police blotters in conjunction with arrests for attempting to organize unions in Chicago, Illinois and Cleveland, Ohio. He tried California next, where he joined the IWW, America's most radical labor organization and the only one that admitted immigrants like him.

The American labor movement was still in its infancy when Hill joined the IWW's San Pedro chapter in 1910. An active member, he was the chapter's secretary for several years. Many of the laborers the IWW (a.k.a. the Wobblies) tried to organize were illiterate, and Hill's songwriting and piano-playing experience came in handy. He composed songs, usually to borrowed melodies, specifically targeting the various occupations the organization was looking to unionize. As with so many narrowly focused topical songs, few of these survive as anything but historical curiosities, but one song he wrote during this spurt of creativity was a little less narrow, a funny parody of a hymn called "In the Sweet Bye and Bye."

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