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09.28.11

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Photograph by Irene Young
RISE UP: Old Joe Hill McCutcheon's show sticks up for unions.

A Love of Labor

John McCutcheon debuts Joe Hill bio show in Sebastopol

By Bruce Robinson


It's not a dream.

The life and times of long-ago union organizer Joe Hill breathe anew at Sebastopol's Main Stage West this weekend in the form of a new biographical play, Joe Hill's Last Will. The one-man show is a collaboration between three songwriters: Hill himself, of course; long-time musical activist Si Kahn, who has written the script; and contemporary folk singer John McCutcheon, who embodies Hill on stage.

"The script is a combination of [Hill's] writing and some imagining of how things might have gone," McCutcheon explains by phone from Washington, D.C. "The conceit of the play is that he is speaking to a reporter through the bars of his cell, a reporter who has come from a Salt Lake City paper to get his last words. And Joe is essentially playing with the guy: 'Yeah, I'll give you my last words, but for the next hour, you've got to hear the story of my life.'"

Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstr–m, was a Swedish immigrant and itinerant worker who became a popular organizer for the International Workers of the World, using music to spread his pro-labor message. He was executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915, just 36 years old, after being convicted of the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and former policeman—a charge Hill steadfastly denied.

As a songwriter, Hill "basically took songs that were popular songs of the day, hymns or Tin Pan Alley or vaudeville songs, and wrote new words to them," McCutcheon explains. Some remain familiar melodies, though he has devised new arrangements for most of them.

But preparing the music has been the easy part.

"I've never tried to portray someone other than me in front of a group of people," McCutcheon acknowledges, although he's relishing the challenge of this new endeavor. "It allows me to occupy the skin of an American labor icon—which is a humbling thing, being a union worker my whole life—to be able to animate that character who's been dead for nearly 100 years and lives in the form of his songs. And be able to use his own words to explain himself."

Although they are billed as previews and not a premiere, these will be the first actual performances of a script that has been under construction for several years. Audience reaction and comments will be invited after each show, "to give some feedback and let us know how it's working."

And yes, the audience will get to hear what Joe's last words actually were.

But no, they won't be given away here.

Joe Hill's Last Will runs Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7–8, Main Stage West, 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 8pm. $40. 707.823.0177. www.mainstagewest.com.


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