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Joe Hill's Ashes

Otis Gibbs

April 17, 2010 Comments: 0

One of the results of the change of administration in the United States has been a very tangible change in the content of protest music. Artists who are ready to give the benefit of the doubt to the new incumbent of the White House have looked around for new subjects for their songs. With the global economic crisis uppermost in their minds, they have often turned the fate of the working man and the stories of the great hero union leaders. When they’ve made it to that ground, they’ve found that Otis Gibbs is already there.
The title song to Joe Hill’s Ashes refers to the final fate of the union activist and protest song writer, who was executed in 1915 following what many considered to be an unfair murder trial. His body was cremated and the ashes distributed among union activists around the worlds and later scattered to the winds. More than 70 years later, it was discovered that a small part of the ashes was still stuck in the U.S. postal system. At the suggestion of members of Hill’s union, some of those were reportedly eaten by Billy Bragg, the artist who has been most responsible for bringing Gibbs to the attention of a British audience.
It’s a song of great hope in which Hill – as a worker, lingering in prison, and even as ashes – is waiting on a chance to shine and continuing to influence both songwriters and labour activists today. Every time I dream about better times I can feel Joe’s ashes stirring deep inside, Gibbs sings.
The plight of the poor is also the theme of “The Town that Killed Kennedy”, which describes the indignities of travelling by Greyhound Bus. Such epic journeys are often romanticised in art, but Gibbs describes bus stations full of junkies and hookers and a bus with an overflowing toilet. There’s a devil named poverty that has brought us together, now the devil’s taking us for a ride
It’s not all so overtly political, though. Gibbs also has words for false friends, and for true ones; while “When I Was Young” describes a moment of complete safety in his mother’s arms. But the album doesn’t end so happily, finishing with the things he forgot to say as all of my friends pass away.
The recording is spare, often just a basic guitar to support Gibbs’ compelling voice. It gives an indication of how great Gibbs is live, so check the gig guide for his tour dates in July.
This is an album with a great deal to say, and Gibbs says it clearly and forcefully, and with a great deal of poetry. Joe Hill would have approved.
UK release date: May 24

Naomi Koppel

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