Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Episode 230: Pie in the Sky


This week Shauna and Dan explore the surprising origins of pie in the sky. From workers rights to great British actors this episode has tons of cool facts! Bonus: Biggest meal of the day


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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 230: Pie in the Sky
Record Date: April 7, 2024
Air Date: April 10, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you wished things could be better? Like if things went as they should and everyone was attuned to the needs of others and no one had too much but everyone had enough? We might call that a pie-in-the-sky dream. And as much as I want that future, I am rudely reminded by life that it isn’t the now. But that concept, pie-in-the-sky is what we are going to talk about this week.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, pie in the sky, has two different but similar meanings:

A reward in heaven for virtue or suffering on earth.
End Quote

And second
An unrealistic prospect of future happiness; something that is pleasant to contemplate but very unlikely to be realized.
End Quote  

I think I use this phrase as the latter definition, something that is a future prospect but is unlikely.

Shauna, do you have any ideas where this phrase came from?

This all starts with the workers rights movement. Sometimes known as the labor movement. There has been a long tradition of workers using songs to get them through the grueling work, often for little pay or no pay, as far back as the human trafficking movements known in the USA as slavery, where predominantly black slaves sang songs, often times from the Old Testament, to help them get through the horrors of life.

This phrase appears to have been coined in one such workers rights style song in the early 1900s called “The Long Haired Preacher” and then later called “The Preacher and the Slave”. The song was a parody of one of the Salvation Army’s hymns, “Sweet Bye and Bye” and mocked the Salvation Army’s focus on preaching comfort in the afterlife instead of assisting people in the now. In fact, the author of the song, Joe Hill, called them the Starvation Army in the song.

Here is the opening line and chorus:

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
End Quote

The first publication of this song is from the Industrial Workers of the World Little Red Song Book in 1911.

We’ll link to a video of the song sung by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock.

Here’s a little about the author, Joe Hill, from the afl-cio page:

A songwriter, itinerant laborer, and union organizer, Joe Hill became famous around the world after a Utah court convicted him of murder. Even before the international campaign to have his conviction reversed, however, Joe Hill was well known in hobo jungles, on picket lines and at workers' rallies as the author of popular labor songs and as an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) agitator. Thanks in large part to his songs and to his stirring, well-publicized call to his fellow workers on the eve of his execution—"Don't waste time mourning, organize!"—Hill became, and he has remained, the best-known IWW martyr and labor folk hero.

Born Joel Hägglund on Oct. 7, 1879, the future "troubadour of discontent" grew up the fourth of six surviving children in a devoutly religious Lutheran family in Gävle, Sweden, where his father, Olaf, worked as a railroad conductor. Both his parents enjoyed music and often led the family in song. As a young man, Hill composed songs about members of his family, attended concerts at the workers' association hall in Gävle and played piano in a local café.

Hill became more famous in death than he had been in life. To Bill Haywood, the former president of the Western Federation of Miners and the best-known leader of the IWW, Hill wrote: "Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don't waste any time mourning, organize! It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don't want to be found dead in Utah." Apparently he did die like a rebel. A member of the firing squad at his execution claimed that the command to "Fire!" had come from Hill himself.
End Quote

We’ll explore a little more history of labor songs in our behind the scenes video, which airs every Friday on our Patreon. That’s

Now let’s move to seeing the phrase used. Here is one where it is still being used in the worker’s right angle, not yet making it into mainstream conversation. This is an article in The Commonwealth dated September 4, 1913. It is titled “The Worker’s Independence”.

The worker is independent of a boss - in his dreams
He can work every day - if he can get a job
He can hold a job - ‘till he gets fired
He is promised a home - over there
He receives the product of his toil - minus four-fifths
He is entitled to life - on paper
He meets death - when he strikes
He eats the best of foods - like hell
He wears a good suit - of shoddy
He eat pie - in the sky
He eats sirloin - off the horns
He is free - to starve
He is happy - at death
His tombstone - a board
His grave - black loam
His flowers - a gourd
His epitaph - “gone home”
End Quote

Here is a poem from The Daily Worker, October 9, 1926 - New York Edition.

By Henry George Weiss

The volunteer clerks for the firm of Eva Booth and Jesus
Second-hand clothes dealers and pie in the sky merchants
Come out every night and sing, Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?
When the drab men and women they sell castoffs to all day
Have seldom the price of soap and water
To give themselves a wash once a week!
End Quote

This is from an opinion piece by Heywood Broun, published in the June 17, 1931 edition of the Indianapolis Times where he is talking to the readers about the name of his theatrical show.

Incidentally, I want to begin propagandizing now on a personal campaign of my own, which may be a little treasonable.

Officially, we have a working title, and that is, “Shoot the Works!” It conveys to me the spirited sense of “Take a Change!” “Let it Ride.” and expresses a healthy gambling point of view.

But my favorite, above all other names, which have been suggested, is “Pie in the Sky” I tried it on a number of people and the reaction of a good many has been: “All right. But what does it mean?” As if that mattered.

Of course, “Pie in the Sky” has a meaning to anybody familiar with radical politics. And there should be more of just such people. It comes from the old I.W.W. version of the Salvation Army’s “Sweet Bye and By”
End Quote

He then goes on to provide the same section of the song I did just a bit ago. This is interesting because it shows that in 1931 it still wasn’t a widely known term, but it was quite well known in certain circles. And, it gives more evidence to show this song was the origin.

This one from the Key West Citizen, July 9, 1947, seems to suggest the author thinks his readers will get the pun based on the title:

Nickel Pie,
Not in Sky
Nets High
End Quote

This is a story by Lydel Sims about M.F. Keathley of Memphis, Tennessee who was about to lose his job at the local Ford plant. And he thought of the idea to sell the little muffin size pies his wife made for 5 cents each. And it was wildly successful, hence the headline.

Here’s one where the meaning is clearly wide-spread, as it is showing up in advertisements. This one for a Chevrolet dealership in the Smyrna Times out of Delaware, May 15 1958.

Spring Sale! Chevrolet Cars and Trucks at Irwin G. Burton, Inc

No fire sales… no trips to the moon… no free gifts… no gimmicks… no pie-in-the-sky promises! Just honest quality dealing on new 1958 Chevrolet Cars and Trucks.
End Quote

Here’s another example, this time a quick saying as published in the Montana Farmer-Stockman, June 1, 1962,

Rockets aimed at the moon never seem to hit it. Just like the schemes aimed at pie in the sky.
End Quote

So sometime in the 1940s and 1950s the phrase pie in the sky went mainstream enough that advertisers, usually savvy business folks, started using it. Next up, I want to talk about our modern uses, but first we’d like to say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

We’ll start in 1964 with the film Pie in the Sky. Here’s the quick synopsis from the movie database:

New York's teeming "jungle" ...where kids learn crime from teen-aged "bosses"!
End Quote

It follows this rural runaway who gets to the big city and finds it to be tougher than he expected.

Early 1990s
Well start with the Pie in the Sky, a… bake sale? Here is their about me page.

Pie in the Sky began in the early nineties as a grassroots community bake sale that helped fund our work to prepare and deliver hot, nutritious meals to people experiencing the ill effects of HIV/AIDS.

Over several decades and with support from more than 150 generous Boston-area chefs, bakers, caterers, and restaurants that baked and donated Thanksgiving pies, Pie in the Sky became known as “the World’s Greatest Bake Sale.” Now a time-honored holiday tradition, “Pie” has been adopted by like-minded agencies nationwide to raise critical funding for additional community nutrition programs.
End Quote

Pie in the Sky was a British TV show that aired from 1994 to 1997. Here’s the synopsis from

Henry Crabbe, a reluctant detective with a passion for food gets set to retire and open his own restaurant, Pie in the Sky. However, his supervisor, Chief Constable Fisher, keeps drawing Crabbe back into investigations.
End Quote

It stars Richard Griffiths as a British Detective and Maggie Steed as his wife and co-owner of the restaurant. American audiences might recognize Richard Griffiths for his portrayal of Vernon Dursley, Harry Potter’s Uncle in the movie adaptations of the book series.

Pie in the Sky Successful Baking at High Altitudes is a 2005 cookbook by Susan G. Pudry. Here’s the synopsis.

Do your cakes collapse, soufflés slump, cookies crumble, and fruit pies fail? For those living at high altitude, baking can be a challenge at best, or a total disaster. More than thirty-four of the fifty United States, plus many Canadian regions, have cities and towns at altitudes of more than 2,500 feet, yet there are hardly any cookbooks that address the special needs of these local bakers. Until now. Award-winning cookbook author Susan G. Purdy has finally written the first-ever foolproof guide to high-altitude baking.
End Quote

Pie in the Sky is a 2019 children's book by Remy Lai. Here’s the synopsis from the publisher.

When Jingwen moves to Australia, he feels like he's landed on Mars. Making friends is impossible, since he doesn't speak English, and he's stuck looking after his little brother Yanghao. But Jingwen knows how to make everything better. If he can just make all of the cakes on the menu of the bakery his father had planned to open-and complete the dream he didn't have time to finish-then everything will be okay. Sure, he'll have to break his mother's most important rule about not using the oven when she's at work, keep his little brother from spilling his secret, and brush up on his baking skills, but some things are worth the risk.

In her debut novel, Remy Lai captures with humour and heart, what it means to want desperately to belong and just how powerful one wish can be.
End Quote

Wrap Up
I struggle with phrases like this. I want the future where we all have what we need. But what I see with my own eyes is far from that reality. People who have a lot keep getting more. People who don’t have enough keep losing more. And the gap between those who are doing well and those who are struggling gets bigger every day. And that brings such power behind the song Joe Hill wrote over 100 years ago, which says:

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.

And maybe. Just maybe. We should focus more on helping those who are living today, and not spend as much time worrying about what good or bad will come after we die.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, what is your biggest meal of the day?

It was a unanimous win among our Patrons, the evening meal is the largest.

My body prefers to have a large breakfast, a smaller lunch, and an even smaller supper. However, my life schedule makes for no breakfast, sometimes a quick lunch, and then supper as sometimes the only meal of the day. I need to find a way to make my lifestyle match with the way my body prefers to eat.

The evening meal is the largest for me… typically because I get too busy during the day and forget to eat… also, I like relaxing and taking my time to eat with friends and family. And evenings are perfect for that.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

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