Exhuming Joe Hill

By now viewers of MSNBC surely are familiar with reporter Adam Klasfeld who currently is attending the Manhattan trial of Donald Trump. You may not know that Klasfeld holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts from Rutgers and studied in London with Richard Digby Day (who “is credited with discovering actors Ralph Fiennes and Hugh Grant”1). Klasfeld is the author of a number of plays as well as artistic director of the theater company One Armed Man.2

Because I’m a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, I became interested in Klasfeld’s theatrical side months ago upon reading that he authored a play called I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill’s Lover, Last Night (2011). It’s the second installment in Klasfeld’s American Folk Trilogy, itself consistent with a body of “work [that] often takes dark twists on little-known historical narratives.” Part one, Report of My Death (2009) involves Mark Twain’s “later life and politics.” Part three, Pluck, “drudged up the sordid scandal that nearly ruined Horatio Alger.”3

Daily Worker (NY), 04 Sep 1936, Joe Hill music and lyrics
From the Daily Worker, New York edition, September 4, 1936. The title is simply “Joe Hill,” and the sheet music lyrics don’t match the ones below.

Of course, Klasfeld’s title for the trilogy’s part two incorporates the first lines of a famous ode to Joe Hill, who was an organizer with the IWW as well as a cartoonist and lyricist (whereby we have the phrase “pie in the sky”). The song “Joe Hill” (aka “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night”) comes from a poem by Alfred Hayes. In 1936 Hayes was artistic director at a Communist summer gathering called Camp Unity, attended by Abel Meeropol (writer of the classic “Strange Fruit”) as well as musician Earl Robinson. In preparation for a fireside tribute to the IWW that year Hayes handed Robinson his poem, whereupon Robinson retreated to a tent, emerging with a song minutes later.4 And the rest is history—at least for those who heard Joan Baez sing the song at Woodstock.

Klasfeld writes that his play “focused on the forgotten love affair behind a union folk hero, and his curious ties to Helen Keller, through a dream narrative.” A notice regarding a one-night performance in November 2011 expounds:

The play centers around novelist Jacob Goldstein as he attempts to unravel the mystery of Joe Hill’s mysterious lover. Visited by visions of folk heroes, floating pies and strange, masked figures, his obsession may lead him to an answer. Mashing up the histories of Joe Hill, Helen Keller and Martin Luther King, Jr., the play explores ideas of art, lust, commitment, self-sacrifice, heroism and the connection between personal and social revolution.

Spoiler Alert

I believe it was Bill Adler who identified Joe Hill’s lover in his comprehensive biography The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, published the summer of 2011. Her name is Hilda Erickson and, without going into detail, in protecting her from scandal Hill allowed himself to be charged with a double murder. His alibi—being with her the night of the murder—would have exposed the unmarried Erickson. Given that Hill essentially refused to defend himself against the State of Utah, his case became a cause célèbre around which workers organized.5

Into the Streets by Aaron Copland and Alfred Hayes sheet music
Aaron Copland’s setting of “Into the Streets May First” by Alfred Hayes, printed in New Masses, May 1, 1934 (full lyrics here). The song won the Workers’ Music League prize that year. After winning his own composition competition in 1935, Earl Robinson studied with Copland for a year.6


In looking at versions of Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” blogger Dr. Lori Taylor directed me to a 1935 volume containing three stanzas of the song. The book is Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology and contains Alan Calmer’s essay “The Wobbly in American Literature.” Calmer sings the praises of Hayes, calling him

one of the younger poets who has developed inside the Communist movement. Adept at handling many moods, this young Communist poet salutes his predecessor [Hill] in his own idiom [song]. […]

The Wobbly literary movement was buried long ago. Its revolutionary heritage has passed on to the Communist men of letters.7

Header image:
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell
sits next to Adam Klasfeld
in the gallery at Trump’s
Manhattan trial, May 2, 2024

  1. See source at Wikipedia.
  2. See Klasfeld’s Wikipedia entry.
  3. See Theater on Klasfeld’s website.
  4. Earl Robinson with Eric A. Gordon, Ballad of an American: The Autobiography of Earl Robinson, Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1998, 45–55. Robinson writes (52) that Hayes had published his poem in New Masses in 1934, but the index available to me doesn’t list it. Adler (see below) repeats this (18) without citing a source. The earliest citation I found for Hayes and Robinson’s song is the Daily Worker, (04 Sep 1936, 5), under the title “Remembering Joe Hill,” in Frank Bergon and Zeese Papanikolas (eds.), Looking Far West: The Search for the American West in History, Myth, and Literature, New York: New American Library, 1978, 407–408. This latter version begins, “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill again/ Alive as you and me.” The New York edition of the Worker, available to me, published sheet music as well as lyrics on its page 7 (shown above), but the twain don’t jibe, with the latter employing “again” while the former uses “last night.” Bob Dylan mimics the song’s opening in his “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.”
  5. Adler, The Man Who Never Died […], New York: Bloomsbury, 2011, passim.
  6. Robinson, 67.
  7. Granville Hicks et al. (eds.), Proletarian Literature in the United States: An Anthology, New York: International Publishers, 1935, 340–345.

3 Replies to “Exhuming Joe Hill”

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Hill_(activist)

    Thanks for connecting the dots from the Trump’s Trial to Joe Hill’s trial. What an amazing life he had. Why not a movie or series?

    His will:

    My will is easy to decide
    For there is nothing to divide
    My kin don’t need to fuss and moan
    “Moss does not cling to rolling stone”

    My body? Oh, if I could choose
    I would to ashes it reduce
    And let the merry breezes blow
    My dust to where some flowers grow

    Perhaps some fading flower then
    Would come to life and bloom again.
    This is my Last and final Will.
    Good Luck to All of you

    Joe Hill

    1. Thanks, Rob. Singer-songwriter John McCutcheon portrayed Hill in Si Kahn’s one-man play called Joe Hill’s Last Will, which our IWW branch hosted in Denver on the 100th anniversary of Hill’s execution in 2015. As for screen, there have been several films and television movies made, and we presented as many as we could at that time. IMDB lists some. I’m pretty sure you can view most of them on YouTube or other streaming outlets. Of course I can dust off the best one when you visit.

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