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John McCutcheon Celebrates The Life And Songs Of Activist Musician Joe Hill With ‘Last Will’

Irene Young
John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon has always been enamored by folk singers. He taught himself songs from a Woody Guthrie songbook that he borrowed from his local library when he was a child. McClutcheon also found the music of Joe Hill. Last year, he released Joe Hill’s Last Will, a record that commemorated 100 years since Hill’s passing. It also allowed McCutcheon to sing some of his favorite Hill pieces.

“I thought that he was probably the most influential writer that nobody has ever heard of,” McCutcheon says. “I thought, ‘I’ve done three dozen albums of my own songs, I can do one of Joe Hill’s.’”

Hill, a Swedish immigrant, came to the United States in 1902. He lived as an itinerant laborer and moved westward across the country. He became involved with the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor organization sometimes referred to as The Wobblies.

Credit Irene Young

“Because they were a union primarily of immigrants to the U.S., many of whom were illiterate, they really used music in much the same way that the church used music to proselytize and educate uneducated and illiterate people via music. What he was really noted for was taking popular melodies—everything from hymns to Tin Pan Alley to vaudeville—and writing new words for them,” McCutcheon says. “The melodies were familiar, the words were new, and often, because of the relationship of the melody to the lyrics that were written, they were parodies. So there was humor, they were designed for everybody to sing, they contained meaty stuff that the IWW wanted people to know about.”

Hill was executed in 1915 after a controversial murder trial. Many feel that Hill’s greatest crime was being an activist and that he was probably not guilty of the crime that cost him his life: the killing of a man in a hat who had insulted Hill by calling him a vagrant.

Joe Hill influenced Woody Guthrie, who in turn influenced Bob Dylan. McCutcheon says that one can draw a straight line from Hill to the folk singers of today, but adds that there’s one exception: Today’s protest songs are almost always devoid of humor.

“If you go to a rally these days, it’s speeches, speeches, speeches,” McCutcheon says, “and, ‘Oh, here’s a song so that everybody can go pee.’ The utter lack of understanding that people will go a lot further on what they feel than on what they know. The Civil Rights movement, for instance, used music that pulled largely from the church. So it had a spiritual heft to its origin stories. You just change a pronoun from singular to plural and bingo, you’ve got ‘We Shall Overcome’ ... and, lyrically, it's not only something that says, ‘We are all doing this together,’ but it has a spiritual element. You know, if you can’t laugh, you’re never going to make it through the hard times.”

McCutcheon adds that he’s been pleasantly surprised by the success of Joe Hill’s Last Will.

“I did a Kickstarter campaign,” he says, “because I didn’t think that this record was ever going to come close to paying for itself. I couldn’t think of a less commercially viable project, but I couldn’t think of a more important one. And I got word earlier this year that it was the number one album on folk music radio in 2015, which I have no explanation for that. But god bless all those folk music DJs.”

John McCutcheon performs at the Richardson Performing Arts Center in Winfield on Saturday evening and Crehbiel Auditorium in Newton on Sunday.


Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.