ON Good Friday in Salt Lake City, Utah, I made a pilgrimage to a place of martyrdom. At the edge of a public park, a blue-haired Catholic anarchist named Pegasus pointed to the patch of grass upon which the labour organiser and songwriter Joe Hill was executed in 1915. There is no monument or plaque, but next to the last crumbling section of the Sugar Park prison wall, we sang the lines from the famous Ballad of Joe Hill: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me/Says I, ‘But Joe, you’re 10 years dead’. ‘I never died’, said he.”

This tribute to the immortal memory of Joe Hill will be familiar to many of the countless people who have attended May Day events in Scotland since the 1940s. The great communist singer Paul Robeson first sang it here during his visit to Edinburgh in May 1949, where he performed a benefit concert for miners at the Usher Hall. Beforehand, Robeson had visited Newcraighall pit canteen and his rendition for the miners was wonderfully recorded for posterity. In 1960, Robeson sang it at Queen’s Park Bandstand at the Glasgow Rally, and again later that month in front of a rapturous audience of 20,000 at the Scottish Miners’ Gala in Holyrood park.

It was picked up by “The Laggan”, a band of shop-stewards whose lead singer Arthur Johnstone sang it every year at the Scottish Trades Union Congress until the Covid lockdown began. Like many others, Johnstone learned it from his parents’ Robeson vinyl (according to Bill Scott, anti-poverty campaigner and a historian of Scottish radical song). Now the song is in the repertoire of various radical choirs that have sprung up in recent months. My own choir will sing it as folk gather for the May Day Rally in Edinburgh today.

Though many know the song, fewer know the details of its subject. Joe Hill, an itinerant worker, organiser and songwriter, was framed on a murder charge and executed by the State of Utah in 1915 after organising a huge successful strike in the copper mines of Park City, Utah. His innocence, widely believed at the time, is now beyond doubt. A mural of his face is emblazoned on the side of a ramshackle rare book shop in Salt Lake, whose owner Ken Sanders told me that on the centenary of his death, Joe Hill’s family sat down together with the family of the man who Hill was accused of murdering, and they shared a meal together.

The religious overtones of this martyrdom became clearer to me during my visit to Utah. May Day and Easter share symbolic power, and of course, it is no coincidence that the workers’ movement is riddled with religious imagery. The rituals of Good Friday and Easter are repeated in Workers’ Memorial Day and May Day; remembering those who died at work or in struggle, the immortality of the movement, and the joy of the victories to come.

The National:

In the archives of the Central Library, I was raking around for radical relics and was thrilled to come across a hard-covered, ring-bound booklet of songs published in 1969, entitled If I Were Free.

This pamphlet, published by the Joe Hill Memorial Committee, was the hymn book for the Joe Hill House of Hospitality, a centre set up for transient and homeless workers to stay in Salt Lake City. On Friday nights, when the other hospitality houses would hold religious ceremonies, the folk here would sing radical songs, including the Ballad of Joe Hill.

This centre was set up by one of the more curious characters of the North American radical movement, Ammon Hennacy. Born in 1893, Hennacy was a peace activist who moved to Utah late in life and forged a reputation for his gruelling fasts and fastidious commitment to aiding the down-and-out. Hennacy was a Christian Anarchist, involved with the Catholic Worker movement led by radical Dorothy Day.

On the wall of his House of Hospitality, a mural depicted Joe Hill facing the firing squad, with Christ on the crucifix behind him.

In a care home in Salt Lake, I met Hennacy’s widow, the writer Joan Thomas, who married the then seventy-two-year-old activist in 1965, when she was thirty. Thomas told me of their shared life as dogged activists and anarchist mystics, and said that Hennacy had come to Utah because he regarded Hill as a Saint.

She did too, she added. Good Friday, not Easter Sunday, was the most important day of the Christian calendar, she explained, for it represented the sacrifice made by the innocent in their effort to end suffering and to overcome it.

That was why it was right to spend Good Friday on the spot of Joe Hill’s death. This religious appreciation of Joe Hill is particularly strange given the anti-religious tone of many of his songs.

His most famous faux-hymn mocks the “long-haired preachers” from the Salvation Army who tried to reassure poor folk that they needed no wealth on earth, since they would get “pie in the sky” when they died – a cliché which was first coined by Joe Hill.

Hill was part of a secular union, the Industrial Workers of the World, whose founding manifesto was written by a priest. The Catholic Ammon Hennacy was also an enthusiastic member of the IWW.

These first two weeks of May are something like the Holy Week of radicals – the time when all of the different denominations of the movement gather to remember the dead and fight for the living. All the different interpretations of Hill – sacred and secular, canonical and communist – find expression on May Day. Come to the marches and rallies, and you will find tributes to the life of Joe Hill and traces of Paul Robeson’s remarkable visits to Scotland.

At the rally in Glasgow last Saturday, punters could pick up t-shirts of the 2020 logo, with Robeson’s face emblazoned above the words: “The Past We Inherit, The Future We Build.” At the rally today in Edinburgh, you can hear the Communist Choir singing the Ballad of Joe Hill.

And throughout the year, his name rings out on picket lines. In the words of this immortal song, “where workers strike and organise, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill”.