Concert at Nordia House honors legacy of labor organizer Joe Hill
Local string trio Beyond Little Boxes commemorates the 101st anniversary of Hill's controversial death
The large meeting hall at Nordic Northwest's Nordia House swelled with song in November, when more than 60 people gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Joe Hill, a labor activist, songwriter and native Swede.
The atmosphere felt more intimate than the size of the crowd might have suggested, more like a song circle with old friends. The band, local trio Beyond Little Boxes, often coaxed the audience with an extended arm to participate in repetitious refrains.
"Without the music of Joe Hill, it wouldn't have been much fun," said singer and guitar player Mary Rose, who explained that Hill's songs resonate with both labor activists and folk songwriters. "Music brings people together; it really is like glue, it holds society together."
Beyond Little Boxes formed organically a few years back out of the members' shared interest in working women songwriters. The group's name was inspired by "Little Boxes," a popular song by folk singer and political activist Malvina Reynolds.
Rose, bassist/singer Jim Cook and mandolinist/singer Mark Loring sang songs by and about Hill, who most famously wrote "The Rebel Girl" and was a named influence of folk legend Woodie Guthrie. Each musician also took turns theatrically relaying Hill's life and legacy through short tales they sprinkled throughout the set.
Hill is considered by many labor activists as a martyr to the early movement. He died by firing squad in Utah in 1915 after his controversial murder conviction — many political and social figures of the time, including President Woodrow Wilson and then-Ambassador to Sweden Helen Keller, believed he deserved a retrial or clemency and tried to intervene on his behalf.
Cook has been putting on Joe Hill commemorative programs for 20 years, but "this was the first time it's been outside of labor gatherings," he said, noting the venue's focus on Scandinavian culture and history in the Northwest.
Nordic Northwest has been a fixture in the region for 30 years. Yet according to Executive Director Greg Smith, it hadn't had a physical space in the community until Nordia House opened on Southwest Oleson Road in June 2015. The space usually holds events and exhibitions related to Scandinavian culture; in one of its more notable recent events, the space hosted two live reindeer in the property's meadows.
The initial idea for the November concert came after Cook attended a traveling exhibition about Hill at the Nordia House in September and Beyond Little Boxes performed some songs in conjunction with the exhibit.
"We wanted to see about connecting with local labor organizations," said Chaney Harter, the communications manager at Nordic Northwest. Harter said that the initial concert had a great reception, so Nordic Northwest and Beyond Little Boxes thought it would make sense to honor the 101st anniversary of Hill's death on Nov. 19.
Cook has longtime roots in union activism in Portland. He was president of the local branch of the Letter Carriers' union until a few years after his retirement in 2007 from his route near Washington Park. Loring and Rose are also members of local stagehand and musicians unions, respectively.
Hill's ties to Portland are stronger than the interest of these songsters, though. He is known to have been a part of the local chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World, and some of Hill's ashes were spread by local IWW leaders in Portland after his death.
Labor activism itself has a long history in Oregon. The state was one of the first in the nation to recognize Labor Day as a holiday, years before its acceptance as a national holiday in 1894. Portland Labor Press, now known as Northwest Labor Press, is one of the oldest continuously running newspapers in the region.
That history is reflected in the songs Beyond Little Boxes plays. But Rose said that the group also was formed in part because of a belief that the classic folk tunes have renewed resonance in today's uneasy political climate.
The trio often cite Hill's parting words as mantra for subsequent activists: "Don't mourn: Organize!"