Joe Hill: executed November 19, 1915

November 19, 2015 at 2:32 pm (history, Human rights, posted by JD, socialism, solidarity, song, unions, United States, workers)

Executed by firing squad 100 years ago today. It seems that his last words were not “Don’t mourn, organize”, but “Fire!” – which makes all the more of a hero.

From the CIO/AFL website:

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

Joe Hill

Joe Hill (1879-1915)

A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers’ rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—”Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.

Born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879, the future “troubadour of discontent” grew up the fourth of six surviving children in a devoutly religious Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father, Olaf, worked as a railroad conductor. Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers’ association hall in Gävle and played piano in a local café.

In 1887, Hill’s father died from an occupational injury and the children were forced to quit school to support themselves. The 9-year-old Hill worked in a rope factory and later as a fireman on a steam-powered crane. Stricken with skin and joint tuberculosis in 1900, Hill moved to Stockholm in search of a cure and worked odd jobs while receiving radiation treatment and enduring a series of disfiguring operations on his face and neck. Two years later, Hill’s mother, Margareta Katarina Hägglund, died after also undergoing a series of operations to cure a persistent back ailment. With her death, the six surviving Hägglund children sold the family home and ventured out on their own. Four of them settled elsewhere in Sweden, but the future Joe Hill and his younger brother, Paul, booked passage to the United States in 1902.

Little is known of Hill’s doings or whereabouts for the next 12 years. He reportedly worked at various odd jobs in New York before striking out for Chicago, where he worked in a machine shop, got fired and was blacklisted for trying to organize a union. The record finds him in Cleveland in 1905, in San Francisco during the April 1906 Great Earthquake and in San Pedro, Calif., in 1910. There he joined the IWW, served for several years as the secretary for the San Pedro local and wrote many of his most famous songs, including “The Preacher and the Slave” and “Casey Jones—A Union Scab.” His songs, appearing in the IWW’s “Little Red Song Book,” addressed the experience of vitually every major IWW group, from immigrant factory workers to homeless migratory workers to railway shopcraft workers.

In 1911, he was in Tijuana, Mexico, part of an army of several hundred wandering hoboes and radicals who sought to overthrow the Mexican dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, seize Baja California, emancipate the working class and declare industrial freedom. (The invasion lasted six months before internal dissension and a large detachment of better-trained Mexican troops drove the last 100 rebels back across the border.) In 1912, Hill apparently was active in a “Free Speech” coalition of Wobblies, socialists, single taxers, suffragists and AFL members in San Diego that protested a police decision to close the downtown area to street meetings. He also put in an appearance at a railroad construction crew strike in British Columbia, writing several songs before returning to San Pedro, where he lent musical support to a strike of Italian dockworkers.

The San Pedro dockworkers’ strike led to Hill’s first recorded encounter with the police, who arrested him in June 1913 and held him for 30 days on a charge of vagrancy because, he said later, he was “a little too active to suit the chief of the burg” during the strike. On Jan. 10, 1914, Hill knocked on the door of a Salt Lake City doctor at 11:30 p.m. asking to be treated for a gunshot wound he said was inflicted by an angry husband who had accused Hill of insulting his wife. Earlier that evening, in another part of town, a grocer and his son had been killed. One of the assailants was wounded in the chest by the younger victim before he died. Hill’s injury therefore tied him to the incident. The uncertain testimony of two eyewitnesses and the lack of any corroboration of Hill’s alibi convinced a local jury of Hill’s guilt, even though neither witness was able to identify Hill conclusively and the gun used in the murders was never recovered.

The campaign to exonerate Hill began two months before the trial and continued up to and even beyond his execution by firing squad on Nov. 19, 1915. His supporters included the socially prominent daughter of a former Mormon church president, labor radicals, activists and sympathizers including AFL President Samuel Gompers, the Swedish minister to the United States and even President Woodrow Wilson. The Utah Supreme Court, however, refused to overturn the verdict and the Utah Board of Pardons refused to commute Hill’s sentence. The board declared its willingness to hear testimony from the woman’s husband in a closed session, but Hill refused to identify his alleged assailant, insisting that to do so would harm the reputation of the lady.

Hill became more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Apparently he did die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to “Fire!” had come from Hill himself.

After a brief service in Salt Lake City, Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where thousands of mourners heard Hill’s “Rebel Girl” sung for the first time, listened to hours of speeches and then walked behind his casket to Graceland Cemetery, where the body was cremated and the ashes mailed to IWW locals in every state but Utah as well as to supporters in every inhabited continent on the globe. According to one of Hill’s Wobbly-songwriter colleagues, Ralph Chaplin (who wrote the words to “Solidarity Forever,” among other songs), all the envelopes were opened on May 1, 1916, and their contents scattered to the winds, in accordance with Hill’s last wishes, expressed in a poem written on the eve of his death:

My Will is easy to decide
For there is nothing to divide.
My kin don’t need to fuss and moan.
“Moss does not cling to rolling stone.”

My body?—Oh!—If I could choose
I would to ashes it reduce
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my Last and Final Will—
Good Luck to All of you,

Joe Hill

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Louis Armstrong and ‘La Vie En Rose’

June 26, 2015 at 8:40 pm (France, good people, jazz, love, music, poetry, posted by JD, song)

My good friend Ricky Ricardi, archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NYC, commemorates the 65th anniversary of Louis’ recording of ‘La Vie En Rose’ (from Ricky’s blog ‘The Wonderful World Of Louis Armstrong’):

65 Years of “La Vie En Rose”

Louis Armstrong with Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded June 26, 1950
Track Time 3: 26
Written by Mack David, Edith Piaf and Louiguy (Louis Gugliemi)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Melvin Solomon, Bernie Privin, Paul Webster, trumpet; Morton Bullman, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, Milt Yaner, alto saxophone; Art Drelinger, Bill Holcombe, tenor saxohpne; Earl Hines, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; George Duvivier, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 37113
Currently available on CD: It’s on “Satchmo Serenades” and about a thousand compilations.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

65 years ago today, Louis Armstrong tapped into his French side by recording two songs he’d perform for the rest of his career: “La Vie En Rose” and “C’est Si Bon.” What follows is a slightly updated version of my original 2010 posting on “La Vie En Rose” and I’ll be back in a few days with a fresh look at “C’est Si Bon.” Enjoy!

For the last couple of decades, “What a Wonderful World” easily wins the title of the most ubiquitous Louis Armstrong recording, being used in a countless amount of films, television commercials and high school reports (just check YouTube). But “La Vie En Rose” is definitely a close second. According to, it’s been used in at least eight major motion pictures since 1994, most notably in the Pixar classic “Wall-E,” as well as television shows, commercials, you name it. And anyone who has spent three minutes and 26 seconds in its presence can easily understand the phenomenon. You’d have to have the heart of the Tin Man (pre-Oz) to not be moved by it.

Of course, the song truly belongs to Edith Piaf, the legendary French singer who co-wrote it and made it famous to the point where a documentary and a feature film about her life each bear the title “La Vie En Rose.” Piaf apparently wrote the song in 1946 and sat on it for a while before she finally gave it a go in public, where it was received tremendously. In 1948, she sang her original French lyrics on a recording that was picked up in the United States by George Avakian of Columbia Records. I’ll let George tell the story, as he eloquently did in the liner notes to an Armstrong boxed set on the Hip-O label, “An American Original”:

“That same year, Edith Piaf took New York by storm an me by surprise. I was doubling as International and Pop Album director at Columbia in those days, and when Piaf’s manager told me she was coming back to New York despite a cool reception the first time ’round, I asked our Paris affiliate to send me samples of her interim releases so that I could try to choose something which might appeal to the American public. I recognized one melody as ‘You’re Too Dangerous, Cheire,’ a failed pop tune I had liked a couple of years earlier. The label said ‘La Vie En Rose,’ and the impassioned French lyric was far superior to wishy-washy English words I knew. We gave it a shot and to everyone’s astonishment but ‘Ay-deet’s,’ it sold a million copies.”

For those who aren’t familiar with it, hear’s Piaf’s original French version, courtesy of YouTube:

As of today, multiple YouTube versions have amassed over 20 million views, a testament to the lasting power of Piaf and that song in particular. But who is in second place? Ol’ Pops with just over 19 million views himself. As Avakian added, “Of the countless cover versions that followed, Louis’ was easily the best, and he never stopped singing it.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Nat Cole: Pick Yourself Up

May 8, 2015 at 7:51 pm (democracy, elections, jazz, Jim D, labour party, song)

A song for all Labour supporters tonight:

Nat ‘King’ Cole and George Shearing in upbeat mood

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Billie Holiday, born April 7 1915, died July 17 1959

April 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm (civil rights, culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, protest, Racism, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues, truth)

The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).

She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:

“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.

“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.

“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.” 

The actor, Billy Crystal  (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.

Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’

But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):

Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.

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Marty Grosz: master of guitar, vocals, and purveyor of wit and wisdom

February 27, 2015 at 8:28 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, philosophy, song)

Marty Grosz is 85 on Saturday February 28.

As well as being a superb rhythm and chordal guitarist is the tradition of Karl Kress and Dick McDonough, Marty is also an engaging vocalist, a raconteur of Olympian stature, a writer, graphic artist (he is son of George after all) and social commentator … in fact a true renaissance man.

Here he is, a few years ago, playing his ‘Horace Gerlach medley’ with characteristic opening remarks:

And here, from the sleeve notes to his 2000 Jazzology album Left To His Own Devices, is his philosophy of jazz:


Forty years ago I had [a] card printed that bore the legend “Put Jazz Back into the Saloons.” If I were left to my own devices, that is exactly what I would do.

When I got into jazz, during the late Pleistocene era, besides embracing the music, I embraced its anti-establishment climate. I was fond of small improvising groups who played hot music unencumbered by the reams of music manuscript that suffocated individuality in large orchestras. Jamming in some low joint far from the pompous, santitized, pious atmosphere of the concert hall enthralled me.

Nowadays when I tread the boards, I often tread upon the planks of exactly those pristine concert stages – stages intended for the performance of a Schubert Lied or a Stravinsky wind octet. But I’ve never quite acclimatised myself to performing for concert-goers stacked neatly like eggs in their cartons. We hot musicians strut and sweat, toot and bang, scrape and strum; and now and then a fan will register involvement by tapping his or her toe ever so discreetly. Most jazz audiences could be whisked away and plunked down in the midst of a Sunday service at the first Episcopal Church of Greenwich, Connecticut without incurring so much as a raised eyebrow.

Nay, Nay, give me the gin mill of yesteryear, that murky shoe box  from whose floors and walls oozed a miasma of tobacco fumes, whiskey breath, stale-beer vapors, the aroma of Tangee Lipstick and Sen-Sen breath pastilles, the scent of Lucky Tiger hair pomade, the odors of show polish, roach paste and toilet disinfectant.

A mahogany bar near the front door was manned by a whey-faced “mixologist” with the sour countenance of one who has heard every joke and clever saying and knows that he is going to hear them again and again until the day the D.T.’s get him and he is carted off.

Flanking the bar like bookends sat two female soldiers of fortune, no longer in the first bloom of youth, perhaps, but not yet inclined towards domestication. Perched insouciantly on leatherette bar stools in ways designed to call attention to their skimpy skirts, mesh stockings and stiletto heels,  they cradled long-stemmed glasses filled with a green liqueur and ice cubes that tinkled like little bells. Each wore her version of what columnists used to call a “come-hither look”, cool, sloe-eyed glances that assumed an inner glow at the sight of a big butter-and-egg man unfolding a ten dollar bill or something larger.

At the opposite end of this long dark space stood a bandstand the size of a ouija board. Six or seven or eight musicians plus a drums set, a string bass, and an upright piano fit on the stand like interlocking pieces of a Rubik’s Cube. If a saxophonist on the far left reached into his pocket for a match and inadvertently bumped the drummer, he could cause a chain reaction. The drummer would lean into the bass player, whose bow then prods the piano player’s back just as the latter is raising a tumbler to his lips, causing him to dribble whiskey onto the keyboard. The pianist unleashed a string of oaths and foul imprecations, which are perceived as offensive by a female customer in a tiny pill-box hat, causing  her escort to rise off his chair and to castigate the pianist for his improper language, whereupon the pianist challenges the gentleman to “try and do something about it.” This prompts the gentleman to remove his jacket as a foretoken of fisticuffs. Raised voices result in the arrival on the scene of a waiter who doubles as a bouncer and who deftly defuses the conflict by pushing the irate gentleman into his seat while cooing the calming words, “Shut up and sit down.” The orchestra, as is its wont in times of audience unrest, combs its repertoire for a properly soothing selection and settles on ‘Tiger Rag’ or ‘Crazy Rhythm’.

When the rhythm moved them, which was just about anytime the band started up, twenty to thirty dancers jostled, elbowed, and kickedone another, alternately glued together like limpets, or tossing each other about like boomerangs, all on a dance floor intended for ten persons. Laughing, hugging, groping, banging into tables, sending glasses to the floor, they tried to dodge the trombonist’s slide which projected over the edge of the bandstand.

How this frenzied stew of foul air, roistering patrons, long hours and low wages combined to produce beautiful music is not as difficult to explain as one may think. Musicians had a full evening till two or three in the morning, six nights a week, to lock into a groove – something that’s almost impossible to accomplish in the two brief halves of a concert format. Players knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses and could compliment each one another’s styles. Dancers were crucial in that they had a way of encouraging a musician to concentrate on the pulse of the music, causing him to think more of “swinging” and less of showing off with empty technical gestures and cheesy visual tricks. “Swing” was the catchword. Trash all those glib announcements: “Swing Fast”, “Swing Slow”: just Swing.

So how, you may ask, in view of the fact that hot music dives have died and gone to their reward, do I cope? I just pop a time-warp pill, and then, in my mind I’m back in The Peek-A-Boo Lounge, The Tropics, The Bar-O-Music, The Gaslight Club, The Blackstone Hotel, The Old Town Gate, imagining the guys on this CD are with me.

-Marty Grosz

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Anita O’Day: That Old Feeling

November 17, 2014 at 1:30 am (jazz, Jim D, love, song)

I saw you last night…

I saw you last night and got that old feeling
When you came in sight, I got that old feeling
The moment that you danced by I felt a thrill
And when you caught my eye my heart stood still

Once again I seemed to feel that old yearning
Then I knew the spark of love was still burning
There’ll be no new romance for me, it’s foolish to start
‘Cause that old feeling is still in my heart

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Eydie Gormé: ‘Tis Autumn

October 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm (jazz, Jim D, song)

A lovely, and seasonally appropriate ballad, performed by a singer I know nothing about (other than what I’ve gleaned from her Wikipedia entry), Eydie Gormé:

The song was written by Henry Nemo, an interesting character

Other nice versions:

Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Stacey Kent

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Cliff Edwards: ‘Remember’

October 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm (cinema, jazz, Jim D, poetry, song)

I learned from Radio 4’s Poetry Please that last Thursday, October 2nd, was National Poetry Day, on the theme of “Remember.”

Ever since I first heard it sung (on a 1938 record by Connee Boswell), I’ve thought that Irving Berlin’s 1925 song ‘(You Forgot To) Remember’ was sheer poetry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Connee’s version on Youtube, but I did stumble across a remarkably moving version by Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards, an extraordinary entertainer from the 1920’s and ’30’s, who is now only (if at all) remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio:

Remember the night, the night you said, “I love you”

Remember you vowed by all the stars above you

Remember we found a lonely spot
And after I learned to care a lot

You promised that you’d forget me not
But you forgot to remember

Into my dreams you wandered it seems, and then there came a day
You loved me too, my dreams had come true, and all the world was May
But soon the Maytime turned to December
You had forgotten, do you remember?

PS: here’s Connee Boswell singing another lovely old tear-jerker, ‘In The Middle Of A Kiss’.

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Hoagy revisited by the Chris Ingham Quartet

September 27, 2014 at 2:54 pm (film, jazz, Jim D, music, song, United States)

Here’s a slightly amended and  extended version of a review I’ve written for Just Jazz magazine. I have no commercial interest on this CD:

Hoagy, by the Chris Ingham Quartet

Downhome Records DOH0001

Riverboat Shuffle; Washboard Blues; Old Music Master; Memphis In June; My Resistance Is Low; Lazy Bones; Hong Kong Blues; Dear Bix; How Little We Know; Old Man Harlem; Baltimore Oriole; Old Buttermilk Sky; Skylark; Huggin’ And Chalkin’; Georgia On My Mind; Stardust

Chris Ingham (piano, vocals), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Rev. Andrew Brown (bass), Russell Morgan (drums)

Recorded at Toucan Tango Studios, UK, 13 December, 2013

Hoagland Howard ‘Hoagy’ Carmichael always considered himself to be, first and foremost, a “jazz guy” (his son’s description) and over the years his tunes have brought forth monumental performances from jazz musicians as disparate as Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane, both of whom recorded unforgettable versions of Hoagy’s masterpiece Stardust (Louis with his big band in 1931 and ‘Trane on his Standards album of 1958).

But it was Bix Beiderbecke, of course, who was Hoagy’s first and most enduring musical inspiration, and for whom he wrote his first composition, Riverboat Shuffle. So it’s only right and proper that this delightful album opens with that seminal number, and that trumpeter Paul Higgs paraphrases Bix’s 1927 solo, before launching into his own cool-school interpretation. It is also appropriate that one of the two non-Hoagy compositions on the album should be Dave Frishberg’s heartbreaking Dear Bix.

Leader Chris Ingham, as well as being a fine pianist (considerably better than Hoagy himself, if truth is told), also handles the vocals and stays pretty close to Carmichael’s 1940s Decca recordings. As Mr Ingham writes in his brief but erudite sleeve-notes, “We’ve resisted the temptation to reinvent the wheel here. Get too clever with stuff that’s already clever, you could end up with something stupid.”

Much of Hoagy’s material is, indeed, “clever” – and “whimsical” and “wry” and all those other words that might lead you to write him off as a lightweight. But listen to Stardust (or should it be Star Dust?) and Skylark and you will hear (as the late Richard Sudhalter noted) the melodic shapes, harmonies and sheer beauty of a Bix cornet solo. And when it comes to Washboard Blues, listen to the lyric: Hoagy didn’t write it (he only wrote the tune in this case), but he must have approved of it, and he sang it on several recordings. The lyric (clearly intended to be the thoughts of an impoverished black woman) concludes as follows:

I’m going to that river, going down to that river some day.
Hurry, day. Hurry.
I’s going down to that river, going down to that river some day.
And throw myself, self away.
I’m going to that river, going down to that river some day.
Hurry, day. Hurry, day. Hurry, day. Hurry…

If you’re already familiar with ‘Hoagland’ – small-town Americana, home-spun wisdom and a bittersweet yearning for something better that you somehow know will never come – then this CD will meet all your expectations. If Carmichael’s world is as yet unfamiliar to you, then this is as good a place to start as any.

By a melancholy coincidence, just as this album arrived, the news came through that sultry Lauren Bacall had died. A visit to Youtube’s clips from the 1944 film To Have And Have Not found Bacall singing How Little We Know (yes, it really was her voice, not Andy Williams’), accompanied by Hoagy at the piano. And watching that old classic confirmed the perceptive truth of Mr Ingham’s sleeve-note observation: “Hoagy was always the hippest guy in the room. Coolly apart from the central action, but all-seeing, all-understanding and always on hand to offer pithy philosophies to the hapless protagonists. And when he played his mysterious, dreamy, amusing songs, people stopped for a moment and listened, felt something and changed a little.”

That about sums up Hoagy and his world: to experience just some of it for yourself, buy this CD and be transported to Hoagland.

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You Take the High Road

September 19, 2014 at 5:30 am (jazz, Jim D, scotland, song)

The wonderful Maxine Sullivan sings Loch Lomond. Somehow, this seems appropriate right now:

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