"Don't mourn -- organize." Those words were reputed to be labor organizer and songwriter Joe Hill's last. Executed by firing squad in 1915 for the murder of a grocer, Hill lived and died by his beliefs. While his actual involvement in the crime is still debated, Hill's contribution to the burgeoning workers' rights movement is beyond doubt. Considered by many to be America's first protest singer, Hill took a populist stance that's echoed in artists from Woody Guthrie to Ani DiFranco. In this era of 9-to-5 workweeks and due compensation, it's difficult to imagine the exploitation Hill and his working-class cronies encountered every day. Composer, pianist and electronic musician Wayne Horvitz wants folks to try.
Horvitz is no stranger to unconventional musical projects, having cut his teeth as a member of John Zorn's legendary free-jazz/surf-metal ensemble Naked City in New York City. He's collaborated with such diverse artists as Kronos Quartet and film director Gus Van Zandt, and he appears on more than 100 CDs -- 20 of them as leader. Now making his home in Seattle, the 50-year-old Horvitz might not be as freaky as he used to be, but he's still a major force in eclectic composition.
This Saturday, on the Flynn MainStage, Horvitz presents Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Chamber Orchestra and Voice. Singers Robin Holcomb and Rinde Eckert, as well as ex-Bad Livers member Danny Barnes join Horvitz on a work that expresses Hill's struggles through folk, blues and chamber music. Featured soloist and old Naked City bandmate Bill Frisell provides Americana-tinged jazz guitar, while members of the UVM Orchestra help weave the piece together.
A collaborative effort between Horvitz and Flying Karamazov Brother Paul Magid, who wrote the libretto, Joe Hill is a musical paean to a time when the underclass was completely without voice. Seven Days recently chatted with Horvitz from his home about the motivations behind this work.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you become interested in Joe Hill?
WAYNE HORVITZ: I've always been interested in that era, but the idea for the piece
didn't actually start with Joe Hill. I was having lunch with Bill Frisell, and I told him I wanted to write a larger piece reflecting a classical composer's take on American music. I'd been reading this Wallace Stegner book about Joe Hill, and I thought, you know, this piece needs something to hang its hat on. If I go to people and say, "I'm going to do a reworking of American folk themes," everyone's just gonna yawn. But the Joe Hill thing was intriguing. Then there's the fact that Paul Magid and I both have labor stuff in our families. My grandfather was the first president of the American Arbitration Association, and my father -- who is still working at age 84 -- is a mediator. Paul Magid's grandfather was in the Longshoreman's Union here in Seattle, and was a Wobbly [the nickname given to the International Workers of the World, of which Joe Hill was a member].
SD: How did you end up collaborating with Magid?
WH: We met at the university in Santa Cruz, but I didn't know him really well. But when Paul moved to Seattle, I'd see him around. It turns out he had been thinking of doing a Joe Hill piece for years, and I needed a writer. It was really nice, because we'd been meaning to work together someday and also get to know each other better.
SD: What's it like working with pick-up musicians, such as members of the UVM Orchestra?
WH: It's fine. The parts that are written for the classical players are written in that tradition. Of course, some parts are easier and others more difficult. I'm coming a day or two early to rehearse with them. But they've been working on it since November. I think it'll be cool.
SD: Do you see any parallels between the class struggles of Hill's time and corporate dominance in our era?
WH: Well, yes. My respect for the IWW isn't just based on what I learned about them, but also on what's happening in America today. In Hill's time, people were asking for a living wage or access to some part of the pie. Now, even poor people just want to be rich. I think the Wobblies kind of instinctively understood that not everyone could be rich -- that one person being rich means another being poor. Nowadays, with rampant consumerism, there's a sense of entitlement. Everyone's owed happiness. People want to be fabulously wealthy without any consideration that there's a price to be paid for it. Like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" The Wobblies didn't have to deal with those aspects of culture. They were simply saying, "This isn't fair."
SD: The members of IWW seemed like pretty rough-and-tumble characters.
Do you identify with that mystique?
WH: Well, that's what first drew me to them. I saw Joe Hill as a Jesse James, Paul Bunyan or John Wesley Harding figure. I'm a Bob Dylan fanatic from way back, partly because of my attraction to those sorts of characters -- even if they were on the wrong side of the law. That kind of Robin Hood aspect of Joe Hill was the main thing. An interesting part about Hill is that we really don't know that much about him -- he's become a mythic figure.
SD: Sort of like John Henry.
WH: John Henry is an excellent analogy. In fact, there's a Mississi-ppi John Hurt tune I use in the piece that's a variation on the old John Henry song. It's called "Spike Driver's Blues."
SD: How did you go about setting Hill's struggles to music?
WH: Structurally, what I did was pick four or five traditional songs that I wanted in the piece. Then I picked four or five Joe Hill songs. I didn't use much of his music, though. A lot of it he didn't write himself, anyway -- they were pre-existing songs. When Hill used to give soapbox speeches, they'd send the Salvation Army down to play hymns to drown him out. So Hill got the idea to put words to the hymns and use the Salvation Army as his backing band!
Then I'd give everything to Paul and say, "Put some structure to this." I didn't start from scratch; I had Paul's words and I could put music to them paragraph by paragraph.
A critic in Seattle noted that the music isn't so much inspiring as it is melancholy. I thought that was very right on -- that's exactly how I feel about it. Not only was Joe Hill executed, but we live in
a world where "union" is still a dirty word. And I think it is something to reflect upon that it's 100 years later and people are going bankrupt because their kid broke their leg.
SD: How do you deal with Hill's trial and execution in the piece?
WH: The execution is a big part of it, but we don't get into whether or not he was guilty. It's a tricky thing to do in a music piece. But nearly everyone agrees that his trial was a travesty. I think chances are he didn't commit the crime, but it's still an open book. I find that ambiguity really interesting.
SD: What do you think Hill would make of the work?
WH: Well, he'd probably be mad at me for changing his tunes, like any composer! If he was just transported here today, I'm sure he'd think the music was pretty bizarre sounding -- he never heard Hendrix or Stravinsky. It's an interesting question, because the IWW was ostensibly anti-religion, but all these guys had some religious background. A line that gets repeated throughout the piece is "A worker is worth his food." And everybody, including most of the writers and critics who've seen the piece, mention it as an IWW slogan. But it isn't. It's something that Jesus Christ said. Paul liked to play with the idea that Joe was murdered by the state, like Christ was, and became a martyr figure, albeit on a much smaller scale. I think if Joe Hill saw the piece once, he might be a bit confused by that aspect, but if he saw it a couple of times, he'd come to appreciate it.