Joe Hill, songwriter and icon of labor, couldn’t understand why the Industrial Workers of the World chose San Diego for a Free Speech fight in 1912. “One of those jerk-water towns of no industrial importance,” San Diego had a population of around 40,000, and “the main industry consists of catching suckers” — tourists. From an IWW point of view, said Hill, “it is not worth a whoop in Hell.”
What began with a slashed tire at a street meeting created, in the words of historian Kevin Starr, “a small civil war.”
“Indeed,” writes Melvin Dubofsky, “never did the number of Wobblies in San Diego exceed a few hundred. Yet those few goaded authorities and the populace into a hysterical frenzy…a condition of lawlessness so pronounced that travelers feared to visit the city.”
Almost every evening in 1911, you could walk down E Street in San Diego, between Fourth and Sixth streets, and have free entertainment. Men wearing straw or bowler hats, and women in floor-length dresses, clustered under imitation gaslights: balls of white glass, lit electrically. The people listened to speakers who stood on wooden crates or short, jittery ladders.
From afar, the scene looked like a carnival. But the barkers were deadly serious. They shook their fists and shouted scorching accusations. They heckled their listeners and were heckled in return.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a legendary soap-boxer, recalled in 1955: “I often wonder how modern audiences would receive the fervid oratory popular then. Styles of speech have changed. [Radio and television] have eliminated action and calmed down the approach.” Back in the Free Speech days from 1907–1916, she says, “we paced the platform, we appealed to the emotions. We spoke loudly, passionately, and swiftly.”
Women advocated suffrage. Atheists debunked God. Health gurus extolled wonder diets. All blazed away not just to be heard but to attract passers-by, who strolled from group to group like window-shoppers sampling the wares.
A block south of Broadway, E Street stood in “the entertainment and shopping district,” a buffer zone between moneyed San Diego and its notorious red-light district, the Stingaree (the “deadline” was Market Street). For at least 20 years, E Street was “Soapbox Row.” And until December 1911, "jawsmiths" could argue their hearts out — even call officials “incompetent nincompoops,” as George Washington Woodbey became famous for doing, without fear of reprisal.
Many shared a common idea: the capitalist system had split the country. Even wage-earners lucky enough to land a job lived in misery. A song summed it up: “We go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength to go to work to get the cash to buy the food to get the strength,” and so on.
Single-taxers demanded “economic rent” of the land: the more you owned, the more you paid, and if you didn’t own property, you wouldn’t pay a cent. Socialists — San Diego had over 1000 registered at the time — advocated changes from evolutionary to revolutionary. Anarchists wanted to abolish government altogether.
The Industrial Workers of the World — also known as Wobblies — met three times a week at Heller’s Corner. Named after the Fox-Heller building at the southeast corner of Fifth and E, the intersection was the center of Soapbox Row. Unlike other groups, the Wobblies had male and female speakers of various races and nationalities. They stumped in English and Spanish.
They also did something that seemed strange, given that they advocated a general strike of every worker in America. They sang.
Joe Hill’s song explained their strategy:
- If workers took a notion
- They could stop all speeding trains
- Every ship upon the ocean
- They can tie with mighty chains
- Every wheel in the creation
- Every mine and every mill;
- Fleets and armies of the nation,
- Will at their command stand still.
Hill and the Wobblies relied on music, he explained, because “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”
Along with street minstrels who passed the hat, two kinds of music competed at Heller’s Corner: the Wobblies’, and the Salvation Army’s. Begun in 1865 in England, the Protestant “army” called itself the “worker’s religion.” Soldiers avoided the upper classes and went to a city’s tenderloin district. In some ways the Salvation Army was the Wobblies’ biggest competitor. Both preached salvation: the Wobblies in this life, the Salvation Army in the next.
The Salvation Army called the Wobblies “heathen devils.” The Wobblies called the Army “sky pilots.”
Late in 1911, when a Wobblie began a speech, the Salvation Army would strike up the band across the street. Men and women in blue serge uniforms with red trim would sing a hymn, accompanied by trumpets, tambourines, and a banging bass drum.
The Wobblies would also break into song. If the Army sang “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” the Wobblies would counter with Joe Hill’s parody, “The Preacher and the Slave”:
- Long-haired preachers come out every night
- Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
- But when asked how ’bout something to eat
- They will answer with voices so sweet:
- You will eat, bye and bye,
- In that glorious land above the sky;
- Work and pray, live on hay,
- You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.
Hill wrote the song after the Spokane free-speech fight. In October 1909, the IWW began a “Don’t Buy Jobs” campaign in Spokane, Washington. They protested the scams of “labor sharks” demanding money for work that, more often than not, didn’t exist.
Hill parodied the tactic in song: “Nearer My Job to Thee.”
When the city council passed an ordinance banning street meetings in downtown Spokane, over a thousand Wobblies swarmed into the city. They deliberately had themselves arrested. When in jail — 12 jammed into a cell built for 4 — they sang, many with blackened eyes and broken teeth.
By March 1910, the legal system became so gridlocked, the Spokane City Council repealed the ordinance and freed the prisoners.
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