1. “Joe Hill” (Phil Ochs / © 1966 Barricade Music, ASCAP)
Billy Bragg – guitar and vocals
Wiggy – slide guitar
Chris Thompson – 5-string banjo
Recorded 11 December 1989 at Cathouse Studios, London.
Engineered by Step Parikian
Produced by Grant Showbiz
Phil Ochs believed in music as a political weapon. The political importance of music is certainly implied by the attention government has paid musicians. Some people continue to believe Ochs and other songwriters (Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, or, in Chile, Victor Jara) were targeted for government persecution. The FBI did in fact investigate Phil Ochs as they did Pete Seeger and John Lennon.
Social and political struggles absorbed Phil Ochs. He was a talented and prolific songwriter, particularly in the 1960s, and he appears as a performer on several Folkways records (including The Broadside Tapes 40008, Phil Ochs Sings for Broadside 5320, and Interviews 5321). Phil Ochs recorded “Joe Hill” for his Tape from California (A&M SP 4148)—and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott played guitar on the song. It was first published, as were many of his works, in Broadside magazine (No. 76, November 1966: 5). Ten of the original 22 verses are printed with music in the latest edition of The Little Red Songbook.
Billy Bragg exemplifies the convergence of political music influences. He learned Joe Hill’s “There Is Power in a Union” from Utah Phillips’ We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years (Philo 1076) and wrote his own song of the same title. He learned the Robinson/Hayes song “Joe Hill” from a recording of Paul Robeson then contemporized the song by writing “I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night.” Bragg and Pete Seeger recently recorded an updated version of the revolutionary anthem “The Internationale.” He has worked with Si Kahn and Hazel Dickens—most recently performing with Dickens for the United Mine Workers of America during the Pittston coal miners’ strike in November 1989. He first learned of Phil Ochs and his song “Joe Hill” from a tape given him by a fan at a show in the United States, and here he sings 21 of the original 22 verses. (The verse not sun is marked *.)
Lyrics: Joe Hill by Phil Ochs
Joe Hill came over from Sweden’s shore,
Looking for some work to do;
And the Statue of Liberty waved him by
As Joe came a-sailing through, Joe Hill.
Oh, his clothes were coarse and his hopes were high
As he headed for the promised land;
And it took a few weeks on the out of work streets
Before he began to understand.
The he got hired by a Bowery bar, sweeping up in a saloon.
As his rag would sail o’er the barroom rail
It sounded like he whistled on a tune.
You could almost hear him whistling on a tune.
And Joe rolled on from job to job,
From the docks to the railroad line
And no matter how hungry the hand that wrote,
In his letters he was always doing fine.
And the years went by like the sun going down,
Slowly turned the page.
And when Joe looked back at the sweat on his tracks
He had nothing to show but his age.
So he headed out to the California shore,
But there things were just as bad.
So he joined the Industrial Workers of the World
‘Cause the union was the only friend he had.
The strikes were bloody and the strikes were black,
As hard as they were long.
In the dark of the night Joe would stay up and write,
In the morning he would wake them with a song.
And he wrote his words to the tunes of the day,
To be passed along the union vine.
And the strikes were led and the songs were spread
And Joe Hill was always on the line.
Then in Salt Lake City a murder was made,
There was hardly a clue to be found.
Yeah the proof was poor, but the sheriff was sure
That Joe was the killer of the crime.
Joe raised his hands but they shot him down,
He had nothing but guilt to give.
It’s a doctor I need, but they left him to bleed.
And it made it ‘cause he had the will to live.
And the trial was held in a building of wood,
And there the killer would be named.
And the days weighed more than the cold copper ore
‘Cause he feared that he was being framed.
Now strange are the ways of the western law,
And strange are the ways of fate.
For the government crawled to the mine owners’ call,
And the judge was appointed by the state.
Now, Utah justice can be had,
But not for a Union man.
And as Joe was warned, by some early morn,
There’d be one less singer in the band.
Oh William Spry was Governor Spry,
And a life was his to hold.
On the last appeal fell a Governor’s tear.
May the Lord have mercy on your soul, Joe Hill.
Now President Wilson held up the day,
But even he would fail,
For nobody heard the soul searching words
Of the man in the Salt Lake City jail.
Now for thirty-six years he lived out his days,
And he more than played his part.
For the songs that he made he was carefully paid,
By a rifle bullet buried in his heart.
Yes, they lined Joe Hill up against the wall,
And blindfold o’er his eyes.
It’s the life of a rebel that I chose to live.
It’s the death of a rebel that I die.
In this time in the cell he wrote to his friends
And his wishes all were plain:
My body can’t be found in this bad old Utah ground,
So they laid him on a fast departing train.
And the rebel rode to Chicago town,
There were thirty thousand people to mourn.
And just about the time that Joe lay dying
A legend was just a-being born.
Now some say Joe was guilty as charged,
Some say he wasn’t even there
And I guess nobody will ever know
‘Cause the court records have all disappeared. *
Now, wherever you go in this fair land,
In every Union hall,
In the dusty dark these words are marked,
In between all the cracks upon the wall.
It’s the very last lines that Joe Hill wrote
When he knew that his days were through,
Said, this is my last and final wish,
Good luck to all of you.
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