Worldwide it has been a banner year for centenary celebrations. 2015 is, for example, the two hundredth anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, and the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta.
In America, one centenary which has received much attention at the grass roots level, but no attention at all from the mainstream media, is the hundredth anniversary of the execution of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and songwriter Joe Hill. Hill is credited with popularizing the practice of rewriting well known folk tunes and hymns to use as organizing tools. Many of his songs, such as “The Preacher and the Slave” and “There Is Power in the Union”, are still in use to this day.
Hill was much maligned and persecuted for his activism. On Nov. 19, 1915 he was executed by a firing squad in Salt Lake City, Utah for a murder he did not commit. It has always been thought, by his supporters, that he was railroaded into conviction more because of his union organizing than any actual suspicion of guilt for the crime.
During the past year many celebrations of his life and work have been staged throughout the United States. Most were local efforts in various cities. There was even a national troupe of musicians calling themselves “The Joe Hill Roadshow” featuring performers like David Rovics and Anne Feeney.
One of the most interesting and insightful commemorations has been a play by civil rights, labor and community organizer and musician Si Kahn called “Joe Hill’s Last Will”. It is part of a series of one character plays which Kahn has written about the lives of prominent, early labor organizers. Others include “Precious Memories” about Sarah Ogan Gunning, and “Mother Jones In Heaven”.
The audience meets John McCutcheon (songwriter, performer, multi-Grammy nominee) as Joe Hill in a Utah prison cell a scant hour-and-a-half before Hill’s scheduled execution. The whole thing runs in more or less real time. This gives an edge and immediacy to everything that Hill has to say. Even when the character is doing something as benign as bragging about being the most requested piano player at dances the audience is aware that, as he speaks, rifles are being loaded.
This marks McCutcheon’s shining debut as an actor. His power as a performer is focused in laser-like sharpness in his portrayal of Joe Hill. I dare you to try not to shout out the responses when McCutcheon, as Hill, begins singing “The Preacher and the Slave”. Si Kahn’s biting and insightful script, of course, gives the actor much to work with.
The talent and experience of director Elizabeth Craven (former head of the MFA Performance Program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, current Artistic Director of Main Stage West in Sebastopol, California) weave text and performance into a seamless whole.
McCutcheon plans to continue touring with the play in 2016. You owe it to yourself to witness this moving and uplifting experience.