Joe Hill on the Merry Breezes


November 18, 1992|By C.R. ROBERTS

Chehalis, Washington. -- Some said goodbye. Some said thanks. Some stood silently as they each took a pinch of the ashes inside the envelope being passed hand to hand, around the circle, there in the floodlit mist of a Wednesday evening on a backyard farmhouse patio outside Chehalis.

How very far those ashes had come. What an odd, long voyage it had been.

These were the ashes of Joe Hill we held between our fingers. These are the very last of his ashes, and now his wish has come true. On Wednesday near Chehalis, the final will and testament of Joe Hill had been fulfilled.

''And let the merry breezes blow my dust to where some flowers grow,'' he wrote, on the eve of his execution, 77 years ago.

Seventy-seven long years ago.

He was a poet, a songwriter, an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W., the Wobblies. On November 19, 1915, he was shot four times in the heart by a five-man firing squad inside the Utah state penitentiary. He had been convicted early the previous year on a trumped-up murder charge. He was 33.

Clemency pleas from such people as President Wilson, Helen Keller and the Swedish ambassador to the United States had no effect on Utah justice. Telegrams and letters from thousands of people around the world had no effect on a system bent on repressing the voice of radical belief.

''Singers of songs and writers of poetry are feared by the state,'' Allen Anger said Wednesday evening. So afraid was the state of Joe Hill, he was eliminated.

''There's a thread,'' said Mr. Anger, standing in the Chehalis living room. There is a thread of courage and fear running from the execution of Joe Hill through to the Everett Massacre and the murder of Washington's Wesley Everest, on through to the murder of Frank Little by the copper bosses in Butte, Montana.

Men fought for the ideals of the Wobblies -- from free speech to safe working conditions -- and men died for their beliefs.

Joe Hill refused the blindfold on that day he was shot, and his very last word, some say, was ''Fire!''

His body was taken to Chicago and 30,000 people attended his funeral. He was cremated, and those ashes of his were sent to I.W.W. chapters throughout the world.

One envelope of ashes was confiscated by the Post Office. Some say the envelope broke the machine and some say that the Post Office was just being ornery, what with the Wobblies being known officially as a ''subversive group.''

The two ounces of ashes inside the envelope were seized by the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of today's FBI. In 1944, the ashes were sent to the National Archives.

There they sat, for 44 years.

In 1988, the last ashes of Joe Hill were returned to the I.W.W., and they were distributed again, to the chapters that remained. Over the past few years, they have fed the merry breezes.

One packet remained, in the safekeeping of Allen Anger at Tacoma Wobblie headquarters. These were the very last of the last ashes of Joe Hill.

We met at Bethlehem Farm, a community home organized by people aligned with Tacoma's Guadeloupe House and the Catholic Worker movement. We sat Wednesday afternoon hearing stories of the massacres, the marches, the undying flame.

Two dozen people joined together -- advocates for the homeless, Wobblies young and old, a novitiate priest, an elder priest, residents and visitors. Mr. Anger spoke of human dignity. He spoke of the I.W.W. ''We got beat really bad,'' he said, ''and that's why there's not many of us left.''

He distributed copies of the Little Red Songbook, filled with the tunes and the poems of Wobblies from old Joe Hill to the contemporary Utah Phillips.

He told the story of Joe Hill, a Swedish immigrant, the man who wrote the songs that carved the soul of the One Big Union. Mr. Anger told the story of Hill's arrest and execution, and then he pulled from a valise the small envelope marked: ''We Never Forget.''

''It is the right of all of us to pay our respects,'' he said. ''Joe Hill made an indelible imprint on American culture.''

People spoke, seated around the room.

''I feel that his spirit is still among us,'' one man said.

A woman recounted as how the Wobblies were the force that led to an eight-hour day and a five-day week.

One man said that songs break the silence of oppression.

Twice we all sang the song that begins:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me.

''Joe,'' I said, ''you're 10 years dead.''

''I never died,'' said he.

We stepped outside into the mist of a coming rain. With matches, Mr. Anger lit an incense bowl of juniper, sage and sweet grass. Smoke rose.

One by one we each took a pinch from the envelope and we cast the ashes into the night.

Without a breeze, those ashes seemed to hang in the air. Those ashes seemed to float, as if they did not want to fall.

C.R. Roberts is a columnist for McClatchy News Service.

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