Shelby Bottom Duo visits MTSU with musical story o...

Shelby Bottom Duo visits MTSU with musical story of labor icon Joe Hill

MTSU rang with the songs of the early U.S. labor movement Oct. 4 when the Shelby Bottom Duo brought its multimedia musical history of activist Joe Hill to campus for a free public multimedia event.

Nashville folk artists Michael August and Nell Levin, who perform as the Shelby Bottom Duo, shared music and stories about the Swedish-born labor organizer at the event, which was presented by MTSU’s Center for Popular Music and the Tennessee Arts Commission.

Made familiar in Joan Baez’s Woodstock version of the 1936 poem-turned-anthem “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” Hill was an activist and songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” whose protest music inspired Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

His best-known song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” introduced the phrase “pie in the sky” into the English vocabulary.

Hill, whose real name was Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, aka Joseph Hillström, was convicted of two murders and executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. His supporters said the 36-year-old was framed for the crimes because he was a foreigner and a well-known labor activist, and the case drew international attention and appeals for clemency.

In 2015, on the centennial of Hill’s death, 40 shows were held around the country to celebrate his life and legacy. The Shelby Bottom Duo organized and performed in the Nashville show, bringing an educational presentation that includes early labor history interspersed with live music and a slide show.

“A Musical History of Joe Hill and the Early Labor Movement” encourages audience participation, organizers said. After the concert, the duo discussed art, activism and Hill’s relevance to current events. The companion CD “Joe Hill Roadshow” also was available.

You can hear the Shelby Bottom Duo singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” below.

The Center for Popular Music, one of the nation’s largest and richest repositories of research materials related to American vernacular music, is part of MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment.

For more information on the Center for Popular Music and its projects and special events, visit

— Gina E. Fann (