×

Where Does The Phrase "Pie In The Sky" Come From? A Song By The Wobblies

Literature | January 2, 2020

Even if you haven't ever referred to an idea as being a "pie in the sky," you've definitely heard the phrase. On its face, it's unclear why an airborne dessert is so desirable, but it comes from a pro-union songwriter who was sharpening his knives for the Salvation Army. Okay, that doesn't help much, either. Let us explain.

Who were the Wobblies?

Source: YouTube

Joe Hill, the originator of the phrase, was a folk singer and member of the somewhat redundantly named Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. They're an international union of anarchists, socialists, Marxists, and radical trade unionists whose inaugural meeting became known as "the Continental Congress of the working class." Recognizing the heightened staying power of music over simple chants, Hill wrote songs for the Wobblies to sing during protests.

The Preacher and the Slave, not just a catchy title

Source: Flickr

Hill wrote a lot of songs for the Wobbles. Memorable ditties like "There Is Power in a Union" and "The Rebel Girl" were published in the The Little Red Songbook in 1911, which was also the vessel for the first mention of a pie in the sky. As catchy of a title as that phrase would be, the song where it can be found is actually called "The Preacher and the Slave," a satirical tune about the Salvation Army and their insistence that a person's reward comes after death. The phrase in question appears in the chorus, which goes:

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.

If you're still not sure how Hill felt about the Salvation Army, note that he often referred to them as the "Starvation Army."

You can find the song in The Little Red Songbook

Source: Wikipedia

As far as protest songs go, "The Preacher and the Slave" is incredibly popular, but it didn't appear in The Little Red Songbook until its fourth printing. Initially, the book went by the title Songs of the Workers, on the Road, in the Jungles, and in the Shops – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent, which absolutely rips but doesn't quite have that snappy quality that allows a collection of songs to jump from cult classic to pop hit.

First published in Spokane, Washington, the songbook didn't just feature songs by Hill. Artists like Richard Brazier, Laura Payne Emerson, and T-Bone Slim all had their work published in the book. After it was frantically reprinted in a variety of pamphlets, manifestos, and 'zines, the songs were soon being sung throughout factory floors and hobo jungles. The songbook is still available today, and in 2007, all 190 songs included in The Little Red Songbook between 1909 and 1973 were collected in The Big Red Songbook

Joe Hill was executed by firing squad in Utah

Source: Salt Lake City Tribune

In 1914, Hill was found guilty of murdering a store owner in Salt Lake City. The Wobblies were convinced that he was framed and that his trial was simply a convenient excuse to send a message to laborers and union members around the world, but regardless, Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915. Hill understandably requested not to be buried in Utah, so his body was shipped to Chicago for a Thanksgiving Day memorial and then cremated at Graceland Cemetery.

Why does the phrase endure?

Source: Amazon

It might have lost its connotation as a pro-union sentiment over the years, but the phrase "pie in the sky" endures as a metaphor for something that's too good to be true. In fact, by transcending its original meaning, "pie in the sky" has arguably become more powerful, something that Joe Hill would have loved. No matter who you are or what you believe, we've all felt at one time or another that we were being swindled. Thanks to Hill, we can point to that pie in the sky, whatever the particular pie may be, and say "No, thank you."

Tags: common expressions | labor movement | music | protest

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.