Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Scatter My Ashes Anyplace but Utah

(from "Chronicles, Volume I," by Bob Dylan)

Joe Hill was a Swedish immigrant who fought in the Mexican War. He had led a bare and meager life, was a union organizer out West in about 1910, a Messianic figure who wanted to abolish the wage system of capitalism -- a mechanic, musician and poet. They called him the workingman's Robert Burns.

Joe wrote the song "Pie in the Sky" and was the forerunner of Woody Guthrie. That's all I needed to know. He'd been convicted on circumstantial evidence for a murder crime and shot by a firing squad in Utah. His life story is heavy and deep. He was an organizer for the Wobblies, the fighting section of the American working class. Hill is tried for killing a grocery store owner and his son in a petty holdup and his only defense is to say, "Prove it!" The grocer's son, before he dies, fires off a shot at somebody, but there's no evidence that the bullet ever hits anything. Yet Joe's got a bullet wound and it looks pretty incriminating. Five people on the same night have bullet wounds and are treated in the same hospital, released, and they all disappear. Joe says he was somewhere else at the time of the crime, but he won't say where or with whom. He won't name any names, not even to save his own skin. There's a general belief that a woman was involved, a woman who Joe does not want to shame. It gets weirder and more complicated. Another guy, a good friend of Joe's, disappears the day after.

It's all pretty twisted. Joe's beloved by all workingmen nationwide -- miners and meat cutter, sign painters and blacksmiths, steamfitters, ironworkers -- whoever they were, he united them and he fought for the rights of them all, risked his life to make things better for all the under-classed, the disadvantaged -- the most poorly paid and mistreated workers in the country. If you read his history, his character comes through and you know he's not the type who would rob and a murder a grocery clerk at random. He just wouldn't have it in him. Everything in his life speaks of honor and fairness. He was a drifter and protector and at all times on foot patrol. To the politicians and industrialists who hated him, though, he was a hardened criminal and an enemy to society. For years they waited for an opportunity to get rid of him. Joe was judged guilty even before the trial began.

In 1915 there were marches and rallies on his behalf that filled the streets in all the big American cities -- Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Brooklyn, Detroit, many more -- wherever there were workers and unions. That's how much he was known and loved. Even the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, tried to get Utah officials to look at the case again, but the governor of Utah thumbed his nose at the president. In his final hour, Joe says, "Scatter my ashes anyplace but Utah."

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