A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder in 1915. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers' rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well—publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—"Don't waste time mourning, organize!"—Hill became, and he has remained, the best—known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.
Joe Hill was memorialized in a tribute poem written about him c. 1930 by Alfred Hayes titled "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", sometimes referred to simply as "Joe Hill".
The poem was first printed in the "New Masses" on September 18, 1934.
Hayes's lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson, who wrote in 1986, "'Joe Hill' was written in Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 in New York State, for a campfire program celebrating him and his songs..." Hayes gave a copy of his poem to fellow camp staffer Robinson, who wrote the tune in 40 minutes.
Before the end of that summer the song was heard at performances in a New Orleans
Labor Council, a San Francisco picket line, and it was taken to Spain by the
members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to help in the fight against Franco.
Michael Loring was the first artist to record the song, with Earl Robinson himself at the piano.
"Joe Hill" was released in 1939 on the New York based TAC Records label (named for NYC's radical Theater Arts Committee). Produced by the Modern Record Co. (which was apparently affiliated with the Musicraft label.
The disc was reviewed in Time Magazine (March 6, 1939)
Earl Robinson himself, recorded the song again in the Reeves Sound Studios, New York on Jan 8, 1940
Released on Timely 503-A (as part of an 78-album set titled "Songs For Americans)
Earl Robinson's 1941 version was also released on the album "Don't Mourn-Organize!".
But it was Paul Robeson who popularized the song after he recorded the song a few times, first time in 1942.
(c) Paul Robeson 1942
Lawrence Brown: piano.
Recorded on January 30, 1942
Released on the album "Songs of Free Men" (Columbia Masterworks M-534)
In 1952 Robeson again recorded a version for the British Topic-label.
(c) Joe Glazer (1954)
Listen to a sample here:
(c) Earl Robinson (1957)
Another recording by the composer himself on the album "A Walk in the Sun and Other Songs" on Folkways Records (FA 2324)
(c) Pete Seeger (1959)
Released on the album "Songs of Struggle and Protest 1930-1950)" on the Folkways Records (FH 5233).
(c) Fred Akerstrom 1967 (as "Balladen Om Joe Hill")
(c) Bob Dylan 1967 (as "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine")
The opening couplet of the song paraphrases the song "Joe Hill", which begins with the lines "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson.
The reference is ironic, since the song seems to deny the existence of modern martyrs to lead humanity towards salvation.
Listen to Bob's song:
(c) Joan Baez 1969 (Live at Woodstock festival)
Joan Baez's Woodstock performance of "Joe Hill" in 1969 (documented on the 1970 documentary and corresponding soundtrack album) is one of the best known recordings. She also recorded the song numerous times, including a live version on her 2005 album Bowery Songs.
Listen and see Joan's Woodstock version here:
Joe Hill was also made into a movie in 1971 (directed by Bo Widerberg)
The title-song (by Earl Robinson/Alfred Hayes) was sung by Joan Baez.
Here you can watch the complete movie:
Stefan Grossman wrote the music for this movie.
Two songs by Stefan Grossman were released on a 45 on the Sonet-label:
(c) Stefan Grossman 1971 (as "Love Theme from Joe Hill")
This is NOT the Robinson/Hayes song.
In 1972 Scott Walker recorded an album of his favorite movie-songs.
On this album "Joe Hill" is wrongly attributed to Stefan Grossman.
(c) Scott Walker 1972 on The Moviegoer.
(c) Dubliners (1970)
Also released on the album "Revolution".
(c) Utah Phillips 1983
Recorded live in Victoria, Courtenay and Vancouver, Brittish Columbia, February, 1981
Released on the album "We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years" (Philo 1076)
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH "Joe Hill" written and recorded by Phil Ochs in 1968 and covered by Billy Bragg.
Phil Ochs' version was a different song based on the traditional "John Hardy"
But Billy Bragg DID record a version of "Joe Hill" by Earl Robinson, this time in memory of Phil Ochs. He retitled the song "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" and recorded it in 1990 for his album "The Internationale".