11. “Joe Hill” (words: Alfred Hayes, music: Earl Robinson / © 1938 MCA Music, ASCAP)
Earl Robinson – guitar and vocals
From Songs for Americans (Timely Records 503-A), originally released 1940.
The name and legend of Joe Hill appeared often in proletarian literature of the 1930s: in Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes, in John Dos Passos’ Nineteen Nineteen, part of his USA trilogy, and in many small publications like The New Masses and The Partisan Review, of which Alfred Hayes was an editor. Part of the Alfred Hayes’ poem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Again” appeared in the 1935 Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology (New York: International Publishers), along with the full text of Kenneth Pathchen’s poem “Joe Hill Listens to the Praying.” This literature, however, generally did not reach a wide audience.
That changed during the summer of 1936 when, at Camp Unity, a left-wing camp in upstate New York, Hayes sent fellow staff member Earl Robinson into a tent with the poem, a guitar, and instructions to produce a song for that evening’s Joe Hill campfire. Forty minutes later, Earl Robinson made Al Hayes’ poem into the song that can be credited with keeping the legend of Joe Hill alive. By the end of the summer, the song was heard at the New Orleans Labor Council, on a San Francisco picket line, and with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Many performers have spread the song to new audiences. Joan Baez sang “Joe Hill” at Woodstock, and it was included on the soundtrack (Woodstock, Cotillion 3-500).
Earl Robinson was the composer of “Ballad of Americans” (for the Works Progress Administration) and songs like “Abe Lincoln” and “Black and White” (made popular during the 1970s). He played piano on the first commercial recording of “Joe Hill” by Michael Loring (1940, TAC Records) and then recorded it himself the next year on Timely Records. For more than fifty years, he has continued to sing this song.