Joe Hill, unknown hobo, dead 98 years said that.
From Europe to California he roamed and wandered
doing hard labor for low pay on wobbly legs
after leaving his home in Sweden.
Born in 1879, Joe was third of nine
poor children who only had enough food not to starve.
Joe left home in 1902 at 23
to pursue the American Dream.
He wept when he saw the burning torch of liberty
and the gray lady welcoming him to the harbor.
Young Joe passed through the turnstiles at Ellis Island
and entered a world of great hope.
To the Swede’s great surprise, the worn dirt roads were filthy
– not paved in gold as he’d been so often told.
The expectations of a life he’d long dreamed of
were just the thoughts of a naïve fool.
The tenured immigrants looked down their noses at Joe
and scowled at the green young lad, his face bright red with shame.
You don’t belong here, they said. Go back to your home.
You’re stealing our opportunities.
He left the Big Apple under cover of darkness
and went west, out to California: San Francisco.
The day Joe arrived was the day of the great quake.
The Richter scale read 7.8.
Market Street and Union Square were totally destroyed.
The ship Columbia listed in the iron works.
Buildings fell to the earth. Bridges burned. Fires raged
all the way up to Sacramento.
Joe worked on the waterfront as general labor,
grinding his dirty fingers down to their bony tips
only to be showered in nickel and copper
while his bosses bathed in green and gold.
Strapped for cash, Joe began to write songs and coined the phrase
“Pie in the sky,” about illusory promises
and working for peanuts in a cold, nightmare world
ruled by evil misers and old men.
Joe joined a union of industry, dedicated
to fair wages for workers ” a heavy little group
promising to defend his rights in the workplace
called the I.W.W..
In time his insightful lyrics were heard by the ears
of a few wicked red devils in gray flannel suits.
Joe saw them coming and in true hobo fashion
hopped a train headed east to Utah.
He slaved in the mines and met a young lady in town
who’d been courted by a man named Otto Applequist.
The two suitors had a furious argument
and Joe Hill was shot in his right lung.
He limped to a doctor, a bullet in his body
and was later arrested for the heinous crime of
double homicide ” a local grocer and his son
shot down in cold blood with two steel slugs.
The merchant’s youngest child, a young lad named Merlin,
told the authorities Joe was an innocent man,
but the law in Utah knew of Joe’s past and said
he was surely guilty of something.
The trial was a farce. Joe was found guilty as charged
and was sentenced to his death by firing squad.
Tell us who was where and we’ll show mercy, they said.
Joe just shook his head and said nothing.
Instead he wrote an appeal to reason. “The undersigned
being a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all
an I.W.W. had no right to
live and was selected as the goat.”
Woody Wilson and Helen Keller, both familiar
with lost causes, asked the governor for clemency
but the old tycoon thumbed his nose at everyone
and told Joe to take his final seat.
They sat him down in a metal chair near a stone wall
and pointed their long-barreled rifles at his heart.
A captain said “Ready. Aim.” and Joe laughed out loud.
“Fire!” he yelled. “Go on and fire!”
They did, making Joe a martyr ” much more than a man.
A beacon of shining light to all unknown hobos
who’ve been beaten and broken and raped by a system
which only delivers false promises.
And so we wrap up the tale of Joe Hill. He’s long dead.
His body is ashes and dust, scattered by the wind,
but his soul is alive and his spirit is strong
and singing to those who can hear it.