17 October 2015


I have often heard people use the expression ‘It’s all pie in the sky’. I occasionally use it myself. When I say something is ‘pie in the sky’, I mean it is something that sounds wonderful – as an aspiration – but that it will never actually happen. We shall have to go on putting up with something worse.

But I never knew where this expression originated – until recently. And, as an amateur musician, I found its origin very interesting.

There is a Victorian song (a hymn or spiritual) called In the Sweet By-and-By. It has words by S. Fillmore Bennett and music by Joseph Webster. The tune is simple and very pleasant. It is still often played by traditional jazz bands. The words of the Chorus are: 

 In the sweet by-and-by
 We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
 In the sweet by-and-by
 We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

A verse states that our spirits shall sorrow no more. Its message is that, however hard things may seem while we're here on Earth, better times will come in Heaven.

But a few years after it was composed, there came a man called Joe Hill, who chose to write an alternative set of words for the song. (Joe Hill had been born in Sweden as Joel Haaglund and was an immigrant to the USA in 1902.)
Joe Hill

That was in 1911. Joe Hill noticed how downtrodden working people were supposed to find consolation in such hymns. He did not like the way religion was being used to keep the labouring, uneducated classes in their place, enduring suffering and hunger, while their masters and bosses led luxurious, comfortable lives. So he wrote some new hard-hitting words on behalf of those downtrodden souls:

 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 in 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.

There are several more verses in the same vein – in particular suggesting the bosses should try their hand at hard work:

 When you've learned how to cook and how to fry;
 Chop some wood, 'twill do you good
 Then you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye.

This is a powerful satire, with a message about a function of religion that is still relevant today, especially in other parts of the world from those for which it was originally written.

I am specially impressed by the ‘pie in the sky’. It is the perfect image to make the point. It so simple and so crisp. The internal rhyme makes it stick in our mind.

It is no surprise that it was adopted into everyday currency and is now used in hundreds of contexts Joe Hill could never have imagined.

So, following the centenary of his important contribution to the idioms of our language, let’s eat a pie and drink a toast to Joe Hill, who incidentally in 1915 was executed by the Utah authorities after being charged for a murder that he almost certainly did not commit. 30,000 angry supporters of Joe attended his funeral. But that's another story.

[And a similar expression to pie in the sky is of course jam tomorrow, which dates from Victorian times. It was used by the White Queen in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.]

Incidentally, a similar thing happened to the calypso-jazz song Buy Me a Zeppelin. It's about the joys of touring the globe and discovering new places, like the great explorers of the past - many of whom are mentioned in the lyrics. But in some performances the word 'explorer' is replaced by 'exploiter' and the song becomes a commentary on the evils of colonialism.
Since writing the above, I have had this interesting response from David Withers in Christchurch, New Zealand:
Hi Ivan,
I have been following your Playing Traditional Jazz blog for a few months now, and enjoying it very much, Thanks to you I am now also hooked on Tuba Skinny.
As soon as I read your post today about Pie In The Sky and read the name Joe Hill my memory went into overdrive. I first heard this name in a song from Joan Baez recorded at Woodstock in 1969, I have a rendition by her on an LP somewhere, but not I think a live recording. The song was also recorded earlier by Pete Seeger, and even earlier by Paul Robeson (1939).
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
alive as you and me.
Says I but Joe, you're ten years dead.
I never died said he,
I never died said he.
Not a jazz song, but from a similar era. The original (a poem) was thought to have been written about 1930 by one Alfred Hayes, under the title 'I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.'. It was turned into a song by  Earl Robinson in 1936.