I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night.
I didn’t really. What I actually dreamed was that I had been selected to bat for England, but that we had run out of daylight before I was going to get my only chance, and I had forgotten to bring my bat. And I had turned up late, anyway. But Joe Hill was stuck in my brain because I had listened to the Joan Baez song whilst washing up and just before I went to bed.
Joe Hill previously appeared in my life twice. First when I was a soldier in Belfast in the early eighties with a weird passion for protest music, the further left the better. This spread into Irish Republican music, which habit was helpfully subsidised by a friendly RUC officer giving me old vinyl records that had been confiscated from the local pubs and clubs. Even then, I appreciated the delicious irony of my wandering round Belfast with a gun on the one hand, only to be listening a few hours later to songs about people trying to kill people like me who were wandering round Belfast with a gun. I have them still, but somewhere deep in a box in the loft.
Joe Hill (1879-1915) was a celebrated union organizer in the United States at the turn of the century, who was eventually shot by firing squad at the age of 36. In tune with the habit of both left and right to overlook any dark side of their heroes’ characters, Joe Hill was in fact a philandering, bullying convicted murderer whose sole saving grace was that he was quite good at getting up the noses of the mining bosses from San Diego to Maine. And in tune with all good heroes, he was immortalized in a song written in 1936 but made famous by Joan Baez a quarter of a century later, and revered by the American liberal left ever since.
The second time he appeared in my life was in 2005 in the Ford Motor Museum in Detroit, where they had a special room set aside for ‘music of the civil rights years’ to which, when my family were busy looking at Kennedy’s car and Rosa Park’s bus, I duly headed off for a quick sing. The room was damp with meaningand nostalgia of a type that only Americans can produce, but it amused me that the only person in the room who knew the words to We Shall Overcome,A Change is Gonna Come and Joe Hillwas a white, middle class politically inactive ex army officer from Britain. Everyone else just mumbled, albeit with deep love and commitment.
But now he’s back. Back in my life for a third time.
There is nothing like having a bit of time on your hands to ponder what it is you think about things. You don’t just sit down one day and do this as some sort of planned activity, but it happens as a corollary of reading articles more than ever before, and then thinking about them on endless dog walks.
And if there was one thing that Joe Hill was good at, it was organizing people to fight together for a better future, and not to accept that they would always be under the heel of the establishment, in their case, the bosses. Odious individual though he might have been, he successfully taught us, as others have throughout history, that we are stronger together than alone.
I still belong to the optimistic half of society that believes that the reasons that humans will continue to flourish is that we have always found ways of sorting out our problems and that, despite what the Daily Mail implies year after year, we have never been healthier or safer than we are now. And the older I get, and the more I read, the less I actually know what to think about a whole range of stuff from Brexit to knife crime. I don’t even know whether to fear the likely Premiership of an apparent Anti-Semite who, ironically, was giving comfort to those people in Belfast who were cheerfully trying to kill me all those years ago. But I do know one thing, which is that, whether we have Corbyn, May or anyone else as our next Prime Minister, they will have incrementally less power to influence our lives for the good and bad. Because that power has largely been ceded to corporations, many of whom are now bigger in their own right than medium sized countries.
It doesn’t matter if it is Volkswagen fiddling diesel emissions, Kelloggs fighting against telling us how much sugar is actually in our cereal, or any tech company deliberately enticing us as early as the age of two into the joyless dopamine-led inactivity of utter dependence on our mobile phones, they are starting to own us. Above all, they own our information. So, in the rare possibility that you have read this far, the fact of your having done so, mixed with the content of this blog, will have subtly deepened the available pool of information out there on you, to be utilised, we hope, innocently enough. But we wouldn’t bet on it, not least because if Vladimir Putin can access it to swing elections, who the hell else can?
And I just found myself wondering what Joe Hill would do. And when.