Q From Lindsay Chalson: I was wondering if you could tell me where the phrase pie in the sky came from?
A It comes from the Industrial Workers of the World, the anarchist-syndicalist labour organisation formed in the US in 1905, often called the Wobblies. The Wobblies concentrated on organising migrant and casual workers; one of the ways in which they brought such disparate and fragmented groups together was by song. Every member got a little red book when he joined, containing parodies of popular songs or hymns (the book had a motto on the cover: “To Fan the Flames of Discontent”). One of the early ones, predating the IWW, was Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.
One IWW member was Joe Hill, a Swedish-born seaman and hobo (one of the martyrs of the union movement: he was convicted of murder on dubious evidence and executed in 1915; you may recall a folk song about him, sung memorably by Joan Baez). He wrote several popular pro-union parodies for them, such as Coffee An’, Nearer My Job to Thee, The Rebel Girl and The Preacher and the Slave.
This last song, dating from 1911, was aimed directly at the Salvation Army, a body anxious to save the Wobblies’ souls, while the Wobblies were more interested in filling their bellies. The Wobblies hated the Sally Army’s middle-class Christian view that one would get one’s reward in heaven for virtue or suffering on earth. The song was a parody of the Salvation Army hymn In the Sweet Bye and Bye:
Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:
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.
By 1911, other expressions using pie had already been around for some time, such as nice as pie and easy as pie and it had begun to be used for a bribe or political patronage (of rewards being distributed like slices of pie) so pie was already in the air, so to speak.