Fredag (Friday), 09:00–09:30, H135a
Affiliering (affiliation): Folkuniversitetet, Uppsala, SWE
Joe Hill: "Humor in the Service of the Working Class"
As the description of conference topic, “humor and society” states, “humor has a history of being subversive and challenging”. A very good example of this is the work of labor activist Joe Hill. The purpose of this paper is to highlight the importance of humor in Joe Hill’s songwriting and the legacy he has left behind. I also take up his lesser known, but equally important, political cartoons. Though few in number they help give a more complete picture of the importance of humor in Joe Hill’s writing.
Joe Hill was born Joel Häggström in Gävle, Sweden, on October 7, 1879. He immigrated to the US in 1902 and was executed on November 19, 1915 having been found guilty of murder after a deeply flawed trial in Salt Lake City, Utah. Hill was a member of the International Workers of the World (IWW or ‘Wobblies’), a revolutionary organization founded in 1905 (Joe Hill joined immediately) that sought to organize all workers regardless of skill, national origin, race, or gender.
During a short, intensive, four-year period, Hill became the most prominent of several IWW songwriters. Humor was a key ingredient in his writing. Hill used humor effectively to ridicule those in power, promote working class solidarity, and hold out the prospect of a better world for the most downtrodden. Examples of such songs are:“The Preacher and the Slave” (with the well-known refrain about getting ‘pie in the sky when you die’); “Nearer my Job to Thee” set to the tune of “Nearer My God To Thee”; cautionary tales such as “Mr. Block”, the misguided worker who identifies with the rich and powerful; “Scissor Bill”, the anti-working class worker, and “Casey Jones – the Union Scab”.
Hill’s songs were immensely popular. They were sung on picket lines, street corners, mass meetings, and at social gatherings. Quite rightly, Hill has been seen as providing the template for protest singers such as Woody Guthrie in the 1930s and Bob Dylan and others in the 1960s, but I also think Hill’s use of humor shows a strong affinity with that of Swedish ‘progg’ (i. e. ‘progressive’) groups in the 1970s such as Nationalteatern, Risken finns, Hoola Bandoola Band, and Nixons beska droppar. These groups, and others like them, were products of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s; an intensely creative period not unlike the one Joe Hill was a part of. Seen in this light, Joe Hill’s songs and cartoons occupy an important place in the history of humor as social protest.
Formerly a foreign lecturer at Uppsala University, Sweden, I am currently affiliated with Folkuniversitetet, Uppsala. My main field of teaching and research is utopias and dystopias. I’ve published two articles in previous CSS conference proceedings: “A Re-imagined Scandinavia in a Post-Trump, Post-Brexit Fractured World” (2017) and “The Brave New World of Recent Swedish Dystopias” (2019). An article, “Harry Martinson’s Aniara (1956) as Menippean Satire for the Anthropocene” has just been approved for publication in an upcoming collection of essays on Nordic Utopias and Dystopias published by Johns Benjamins. I have also lectured on American political humor.