Origins of the Phrase “Pie in the Sky”

Pie in the Sky is a phrase that dates back to a sonf published in 1911 by Joe Hill.
Pie in the Sky is a phrase that dates back to a song published in 1911 by Joe Hill.

When I read anything, the first thing I look for, are English idioms. Some of them I know, others I have to research their meaning in an Encyclopedia or a good dictionary. This is the case with the phrase, “pie in the sky”.

A good dictionary will define “pie in the sky” as the illusory promise of a desired outcome that is unlikely to happen. For example, during the Middle Ages, the Church which was an ally of the King, would tell the peasants to suffer gracefully here on Earth, because they would be compensated in Heaven when they died. The future compensation for suffering here on Earth was symbolized as a “pie in the sky”.


This is an American phrase coined by Joe Hill in 1911. Hill was a Swedish-born itinerant laborer who migrated to the USA in 1902. He was a leader of a radical organization called “The Industrial Workers of the World”, and their members were referred to as the Wobblies. He wrote many radical songs for them.

One of these songs was The Preacher and the Slave, which parodied the Salvation Army hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye“. It was in this song where Hill included the phrase “pie in the sky”. When the migrant workers returned to the cities, they met the Salvation Army asking for money.

The song, which criticized the Salvation Army’s theology and philosophy, specifically their concentration on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry, was popular when first recorded in 1911 and remained so for some years.

Below are the lyrics of Hill’s song;

The Preacher and the Slave

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.

The starvation army they play,
They sing and they clap and they pray
‘Till they get all your coin on the drum
Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum:

Holy Rollers and jumpers come out,
They holler, they jump and they shout.
Give your money to Jesus they say,
He will cure all diseases today.
If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.

Workingmen of all countries, unite,
Side by side we for freedom will fight;
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

You will eat, bye and bye,
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
Chop some wood, ’twill do you good,
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

The phrase wasn’t taken up until the Second World War, when it began to be used figuratively to refer to any prospect of future happiness which was unlikely ever to be realized.

As you can see, the phrase has nothing to do with a pie hanging in the middle of the blue sky as portrayed in the image above. Arrivederci!

Source: The Phrase Finder – Pie in the Sky

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