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  • David Bentley

Sånger av och om Joe Hill (various artists) (Sweden) with feature artist - Anna Frank

In November last year we wrote a tribute to a Swedish actor and singer, Sven Wollter, who had recorded a version of ‘Ballade om Joe Hill’ (the Ballad of Joe Hill), one of many versions of that song which has been performed by a glitterati of top musicians over the years. Read about it here.

It also gave me the opportunity to tell the tale of Joe Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglunde in Gävle,central Sweden, who migrated to the USA in 1902, becoming a labour activist, writer, cartoonist and songwriter as he made his way across the country, eventually becoming exalted internationally as a workers’ leader and the father of protest music, until his untimely death at the age of 36, allegedly ‘fitted up’ for a murder he did not commit.

There is a dichotomy in the Swedish attitude to Hill. In many cases there is no attitude at all; people still don’t know about him to this day, including young labour activists. But to many (and not only in Sweden by any means, indeed throughout the world) he is a hero; even ‘the last Swedish hero’ as he is sometimes described.

Within his home town there is an active community who don’t only remember him, they make every effort to publicise his story to this day. I don’t know of any particular anniversary at the moment but a collective of Gävle musicians – together with a few outsiders - have just had a compilation album of Joe Hill songs released and it is available on Spotify. The title is ‘Sånger av och om Joe Hill’ (‘Songs by and about Joe Hill’). Apparently there is a release party for it this coming week. The songs are either Hill’s own or they are connected to him in some other way as the title suggests.

Probably the most famous of them is Hill’s own ‘The Rebel Girl’, recorded here by Love on Drugs. The second verse sums up Joe Hill’s thinking perfectly:

“Yes, her hands may be hardened from labour

And her dress may not be very fine

But a heart in her bosom is beating

That is true to her class and her kind

And the grafters in terror are trembling

When her spite and defiance she’ll hurl

For the only and thoroughbred lady

Is the Rebel Girl”

‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’ here is performed by Katako, the vocalist being Kattis Larsson, who also has the project Ryggrad, another contributor to the album, while Transmissionplot perform ‘The Man who never died’, which makes reference to ‘I dreamed of Joe Hill last night’, a song recorded and sung by, amongst others, Joan Baez, and in her case at Woodstock. In it, Hill replies to the statement, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”, with “I never died”, thereby insisting that the fight goes on. Hill’s final words before execution instructed his followers not to waste time mourning him but to ‘organise’.

The band Ulgebräk offers ‘Det ãr kraft I vårt förbund’ (‘There is power in our union’). A local source tells me that they’ve been around for 40 years, had broken up, but reunited last year.

Yet another artist appearing here that regular readers may know is Daniel Östersjö, of Le Lac Long 814, working with Elin Lyth on ‘Don’t take my papa away from me’. And is that Greta’s ‘dad’, Jacob Thunberg, with ‘Paper Heart’?

The link to the album is at the end. For the featured artist I’ve chosen Anna Frank, who I watched perform a powerful set at a festival there four years ago but had lost touch with her since. It’s good to know she’s still making music. Her contribution, ‘The White Slave’ is probably the most rock-oriented track and cleverly picks up on the theme of one of Joe Hill’s most famous songs, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, a favourite of the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

This entire work transcends a mere tribute album. It is a labour of love to put something like this together and so representative of the phenomenal span of musical talent and styles in and around this favourite town of mine, not to mention those outsiders who consistently over the decades have been drawn to write songs about Joe Hill. I hope that by hook or by crook we can bring it to the attention of music loving workers and their representatives around the world.

Full album:

You can find Anna Frank here. And the Joe Hill museum here.


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