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  • David Bentley

Sven Wollter – The Ballad of Joe Hill (a tribute)

Another slightly unusual piece. This is in the way of a tribute to Sven Wollter, a Swede who died on 10th November, and it also gives me the opportunity to introduce ‘Joe Hill’.

Sven Wollter was an actor with quite a Hollywood film and TV reputation and a gravelly-voiced baritone singer. He was a long-time member of the Swedish Communist Party and in 2018 he received the Lenin Award, named after Vladimir Lenin.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining his connection with Joe Hill, who would be the most famous Swede you never heard of except that he isn’t too well known there, either.

So who is Joe Hill? You’d be forgiven for not knowing but he is a hugely significant figure in the music universe. Hill, born Joel Emmanuel Hägglunde in Gävle, north of Stockholm, migrated to the USA in 1902, working his way across the country and becoming a labour activist through membership of the Industrial Workers of the World movement. He became a songwriter and cartoonist for the IWW, releasing popular songs such as ‘The Rebel Girl’ and ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, in which he first coined the phrase “pie in the sky” in the line “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die”. He has come to be regarded as an icon of the workers movement, firstly in the U.S., and later globally, the father of protest music and the Bob Dylan of his day. Dylan said of him, "Joe Hill had the light in his eyes".

In 1915 Hill was executed following a controversial trial for murder (some say he was “fitted up” by bosses and even by one of the unions) despite local and international appeals for clemency, two of which came from the then-President Woodrow Wilson.

A poem written in 1930 about Hill, who has been described as “the last Swedish hero” and called ‘I dreamed of Joe Hill last night,’ was turned into a song in 1936 and Joan Baez released her version of it in 1970, having performed it at Woodstock the year before. In it, Hill replies to the statement, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”, with “I never died”, and in a way he didn’t. His life and death have also inspired books and poetry and it is said that “his spirit lives on in every left winger, Socialist and Trade Unionist.” Others to have recorded this song or otherwise sung about Hill include Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Patti Smith and ‘the Boss’, Bruce Springsteen.

There is a Joe Hill museum in Gävle and a small band of people constantly working to keep his memory alive over a century after his death. I’m often surprised when I talk to active trade unionists here in the UK. Most of them certainly know of him. There is – or at least was – an annual Joe Hill Memorial Award night in Sweden with past recipients of the Laureate including Joan Baez and Patti Smith.

Sven Wollter’s version of the song is here (one of seven by different artists on Spotify), followed by links to Baez’s live performance at Woodstock and one by Springsteen from 2014.

There are also versions by Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen.


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