5. “Joe Hill” (words: Alfred Hayes, music: Earl Robinson / © 1938 MCA Music, ASCAP)
Paul Robeson – vocals
Alan Booth – piano
From Freedom Songs (Topic Records Top 62), originally released 1961.
When Earl Robinson and Paul Robeson came together to rehearse Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans” in 1939, Robeson told him, “I know one of your songs.” He had learned “Joe Hill” in the Workers’ Theatre in England fewer than three years after it was written. The song has stayed current in oral tradition; it was collected in the filed in the 1970s for the Folkways record English Folk Music Anthology (FE 38553).
From his professional concert debut in 1925, Paul Robeson introduced international audiences to spirituals and other non-commercial American songs. Among his standards was “Joe Hill,” and his was the version that touched a wide, popular audience. In his rendition of the song, he made a significant change in the original words: rather than “what they forgot to kill went on to organize,” Robeson sang that “what they could never kill went on to organize.”
Because of this song in particular, the story of Joe Hill has continued to touch a large audience. Robeson himself was influenced by the story. A boyhood friend ended his eulogy of Robeson by paraphrasing a line that the singer used to close his rendition of “Joe Hill”: “Don’t mourn for me, but live for freedom’s cause.” The words Joe Hill wrote filtered through oral and written tradition as a call to battle, as here for civil rights. Freedom Songs, release in 1961, came out after Robeson’s career had peaked and when his image had been damaged by blacklisting in the 1950s. He lived abroad that year, in England and on the European continent. Despite failing health, his reputation was strong enough to support this release after something of a resurgence in his popularity in the late 1950s, partially because of publication of his popular book, Here I Stand in 1958. Recently a comprehensive biography, Paul Robeson, was published (Martin B. Duberman, New York: Knopf, 1988).
I dream I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”
“I never died,” says he.
“In Salt Lake, Joe, by God,” says I,
Him standing by my bed.
“They framed you on a murder change,”
Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead.”
“The copper bosses shot you, Joe,
They killed you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
“And standing there as big as life,
And smiling with his eyes,
Joe says, “What they could never kill
Went on to organize.”
“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me.
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.”
Where workingmen are out on strike,
Joe Hill is at their side.
From San Diego up to Maine,
In every mine and mill,
Where workers strike and organize,
Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill.”