Where Does the Phrase “Pie in the Sky” Come From?

North Korea has spurned America’s latest diplomatic overture, which included offers of food and fuel should Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear arsenal. A spokesman from North Korea’s Foreign Ministry derided American aid as “a pie in the sky.” What are the origins of that oft-used idiom for a sham promise?

It’s somewhat fitting that an official from North Korea, the most hardline communist nation left on the planet, should choose a phrase coined by a champion of the American proletariat. “Pie in the sky” comes from an early 20th-century folk song written by labor activist Joe Hill, aka Joe Hillstrom, a legendary member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The song, titled “The Preacher and the Slave,” is a satiric attack on the Salvation Army, whose preachers Hill decried for lulling workers into complacency. The first verse 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.

“The Preacher and the Slave” was included in the Little Red Songbook distributed to IWW members, who were also known as “Wobblies.” (The nickname’s origins are much debated; one possible explanation is that it stems from the flexible “wobble saws” used to chop down trees.) Other Hill-penned numbers in the motivational songbook included “The Rebel Girl” and “Workers of the World, Awaken!”

A Swedish immigrant born Joel Emmanuel Haggland, Hill is perhaps most famous for the sensational circumstances surrounding his death. He was found guilty of murdering a Salt Lake City shopkeeper in 1914 and executed by firing squad the following year. The Wobblies believed the charges were trumped up as payback for Hill’s musical activism.

Click here to listen to a rendition of “The Preacher and the Slave,” performed by folk singer Utah Phillips (requires RealPlayer).

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