On the new Joe Hill and why there is so little protest music
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”- John 8:32
“As sure as God made the day and the night, what you do in the dark will be brought to the light.”- traditional African-American spiritual
Joe Hill is a sort of mythic figure in the annals of American folk music; the kind of figure almost incomprehensible to modern fans. He never recorded, no living person has ever heard him perform, and the songs written about him- by Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Morello, and two generations of Earles- are much better known than those written by him.
Born in Sweden, Hill came to America in 1902 and became a migrant worker. Around 1910, he joined the Industrial Workers of the World and put his talents to use penning songs for the “Wobbly” cause. His songs still make up a large portion of the infamous union’s songbook.
In 1914, Hill was accused of murdering storekeeper John G. Morrison near Salt Lake City. The evidence in the case was overwhelming and it pointed to a clear verdict of “not guilty.” But that was, unfortunately, not what happened. On the morning of November 19, 1915, Joe Hill was executed by firing squad. Shortly before his death he had written to his friend and fellow union organizer Bill Haywood saying, “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”
Going forward several decades, take a look at Chilean activist and folk singer Victor Jara. After years of writing political songs, Jara and his like-minded Chileans were finally rewarded in 1970 when Salvador Allende was elected President. However, some did not want him to lead the country and on September 1973, Allende was killed in a coup by the Chilean military and right-wing officials. Some believe that the U.S. government, fearing a “domino effect” in South America, actively supported this action.
Jara was taken prisoner two days after the overthrow and following three days of being beaten and tortured, he was shot and killed while singing “Venceremos,” the national anthem of the Allende regime, which means, in English, “We Will Win.”
Hill and Jara were two men who, regardless of whether or not you agree with their extreme left-wing politics, could never be accused of not devoting themselves to what they believed in. “Where are the protest songs?” is a question that has often been asked on this site and, as much as I idolize guys like Morello, Bragg, Earle, David Rovics, and others, is one I really don’t have an adequate answer to. But I do have a theory.
There is no Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs in this generation because music has become less important. Certainly not to the members of this community, but to the public at large. The protest singers of the ’60s grew up idolizing guys like Elvis and Buddy Holly and that is why music became their primary form of protest. In the 18th century, when the written word was the primary means of knowledge, communication and entertainment, guys like Thomas Paine used books as his way of protesting.
This generation didn’t have a central musical figure like Presley or the Beatles whom almost everybody loved or at least respected. They are the video game and computer generation and their central figure is Facebook. Yes, they have absorbed music, but only through technology: Napster, iTunes, YouTube, Guitar Hero, etc. Bob Lefsetz captured this idea perfectly a few months back when he wrote:
“In the twentieth century, the way you gave the middle finger to the establishment was being an entertainer. You achieved notoriety, made a ton of dough from your fans and went your own way. Now, entertainers are the most sold-out, whored-out people on the planet. Tell me what to do, oh great record company President! I need to tie in with corporations to get my message out. It’s not good enough to stand on its own. I need help in order to make it. Use me, abuse me, because my only goal is to become famous. Sure, I’d like to make some coin along the way, but never enough where I can throw my weight around, where I can truly mess with the fat cats that run this country.
That’s what rock stars used to do. Beholden to no one, they spoke their inner truths and moved generations. Now, that’s left to techies. The public enters the information, but the techies create a game, a framework that enriches lives and themselves at the same time. Hell, isn’t that the way ROCK STARS used to do it?”
So if Mark Zuckerberg is the new Elvis Presley, who is the new Joe Hill? Who is the person destined to live their (most likely short) life on the fringes of society? Our Founding Fathers had Tom Paine, our great-grandparents’ generation had Joe Hill and the Wobblies, a generation ago was Phil Ochs. We have Julian Assange.
Assange has been instantly vilified by the mass media, but his critics all operate on the flawed assumption that, as the brilliant Jack Nicholson said, “you can’t handle the truth.” In reality, it is quite the opposite. In reality, if the American people were allowed to see the memo the President saw on August 6th, 2001, 3,000 people would have still been alive a month later and there likely would have been no PATRIOT Act, and no phony excuses made to justify two illegal wars. Wouldn’t we have all liked that scenario better?
In this country “we the people” are supposed to be in charge and if we seek the truth about how the government operates, they damn well better give it to us. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way and Mr. Assange is attempting to correct that. People are quick to demand that those behind WikiLeaks be charged with treason and some, like Mike Huckabee and Bill O’Reilly, have even advocated executing the informants. They blame the messenger, yet nobody is talking about what the leaks actually reveal. This is largely because every major media organization is beholden to either liberals or conservatives and something like this, which clearly places the blame on both parties, simply cannot be covered.
Before he was gunned down in Dallas, President Kennedy famously said, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it.”
It may be made to look like a suicide. They may execute him, as they did Joe Hill or Victor Jara. Maybe somebody will pull a Jack Ruby as he’s being escorted to the courtroom to prevent more secrets from coming out under oath. Regardless of how it happens, Julian Assange is destined to die young. Mark my word on that. And when he goes, it would be wise to remember Joe Hill’s words: “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”