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

By | December 31, 2019

Who were the Wobblies?

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.

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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

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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."