I didn’t mean to do this – it’s just a typical pensioner reflex to turn on Radio 4 whenever in the kitchen– so as I chopped the vegetables I listened to the Sunday morning repeat of Ed Milliband’s much mocked choice of Desert Island discs. Somewhere between AHA and Blake’s Jerusalem, Paul Robeson’s majestic bass voice sang the Ballad of Joe Hill. That rather than the onions brought tears to my eyes.
I last came across this song in Norway and sang it in Norwegian with my leftist folk singing group. It sounded great. Joe Hill was born in Sweden and I think I saw a Swedish film about his short life and judicial murder in the States. Hill was a migrant worker, political song writer and “Wobbly” Union activist at a time of brutal exploitation. In the wrong place at the wrong time he turned up at a Utah hospital with a bullet in his chest and was subsequently framed for the murder of a store-keeper. He was executed by Firing Squad in spite of representations by the American President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and the Swedish Ambassador.
As if in anticipation of the song written after his death, Joe Hill did little to contest his rigged trial. It was as if he wanted to be martyred. Either that or a misplaced discretion prevented him from revealing the names of the love rival who shot him and the woman with whom he had formed an attachment – shades of the song: The Long Black Veil.
In The Ballad of Joe Hill, Joe appears in a dream to announce his immortality:
Joe Hill ain’t dead he says to me, Joe Hill ain’t never died; Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side, Joe Hill is at their side.
This is so like Jesus Christ’s promise to his apostles “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, as quoted by St Matthew.
Slovene Slavoj Žižek is a volcanic speaker whose eruptions last up to half an hour smothering his listeners with an apparently random list of anecdotes, quotations, startling opinions, strained associations and brilliant metaphors which despite their spluttering semi coherence coalesce into a cogent argument. His take on Christianity in “God in Pain”, is a portrait of a baffled God. The Father of the Old Testament has ceded his omnipotence and having seen his human incarnation crucified. Quoting the French poet Paul Claudel’s conclusion that “God can’t do anything without us”, Žižek envisages God leaving humanity with the challenge of living up to Christ’s sacrifice, with the inspiration provided by the Holy Spirit.
It should not be fanciful to see Joe Hill in this light. A partly self created Jesus Christ fighting for humanity’s betterment.