3. “Joe Hill’s Ashes” (Mark Levy/ © 1989 Mark A. Levy, ASCAP)
Mark Levy – guitar and vocals
Recorded by Jon Tyler, 6 February 1990 at the Leonard Carmichael Auditorium, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Digitally mastered by Air Show, Springfield, Virginia.
On 1 May 1916 Joe Hill’s ashes were sent to the wind by Wobblies across the United States and in several other countries. The ashes had been divided and put into envelopes with his “Last Will” on one side: “My body? Oh! If I could choose, I would to ashes it reduce. . . .” The envelopes were went to I.W.W. locals and to every continent. But several envelopes slipped through the distribution system—tucked away in songbooks or confiscated by government officials. Stories of envelopes found and released in private ceremonies circulate among Wobblies and others, but the story of at least one envelope of Joe Hill’s ashes has been well documented and has become rather well known. The envelope was first confiscated when a mail handler feared its “subversive nature.” Eventually the envelope was sent to the National Archives’ records of the Post Office Department.
When the story of the lost envelope spread, the I.W.W. requested that the ashes be returned to the union. They were, though the envelope remains in the Archives. Utah Phillips and Fellow Worker Fred Lee accepted the ashes for the union. Mark Levy learned of the story from Jimmy Kelly, a letter carrier from Santa Cruz, California, and an organizer of the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival, where Levy first performed this song in 1989.
Let’s sing of Joseph Hillstrom, better known as old Joe Hill,
Murdered by a firing squad, shot but never killed.
His will said that his be strewn across the land
So flowers that refuse to die will rise up strong and stand.
We sing his songs to fan the flames
And talk about him much,
The ashes of this rebel voice
Are still too hot to touch.
Joe’s corpse lay in Chicago where thirty thousand marched.
They flew the Wobbly banner—high above the throng it arched.
The workers sang and cheered his name, they did not eulogize.
They honored Joe Hill’s last request: Don’t mourn, organize.
And the union took Joe’s body, which then they did cremate,
His ashes stuffed in envelopes and mailed to every state.
Except, of course, to Utah, for Joe had clearly said,
“Don’t leave me here in Utah; there I wouldn’t be found dead.”
Then someone in the mailroom discovered what was up.
The postmaster was summoned the mailing to disrupt.
An envelope torn open in the cancelling machine.
‘Twas just Joe’s way of saying automation is obscene.
With patriotic fervor the postmaster was seized.
He treated that poor envelope as if it was diseased.
He said, “I won’t deliver such subversive mail.”
So for a while Joe had to wait in some dead letter file.
At long last the Post Office sent Joe’s ashes to D.C.,
To the Archives like an artifact of ancient history.
The Wobblies in Chicago asked that he be sent home,
They wouldn’t see him catalogued down in that catacomb.
So Joe’s back with the Wobblies, and thus concludes my tale.
But if there is a moral, I might say, “Don’t trust the mail.”
We’ll build that One Big Union before Joe’s ask gets cold.
And we’ll bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.