Pie in the sky is an expression of cynicism. It has various shades of meaning but it basically refers to an idea or dream that is not likely at all to ever happen.
When someone has an idea that they think is really great, but it seems completely farfetched and maybe a bit ridiculous, we say it’s “pie in the sky” or even that they are being “pie in the sky.” When someone has a wild, ambitious or unlikely dream, especially about some future reward, we call it a pie in the sky dream. I tend to use the idiom to refer to anything that I think is just way off in left field and not based on anything of substance. To learn more about the history of the expression, see the video presentation below, or read the rest of the article below the video.
I guess the idea of a pie in the sky is a fairly ludicrous image, so we couldn’t be blamed for thinking this expression just came about out of general images of unlikely things, especially food, being in the sky, but it was coined by one man and then picked up into the general parlance quite widely.
Pie in the Sky is not a very old expression, as expressions go, and it is very easy to trace. It comes from a song written in 1911 by Joe Hill, called “The Preacher and the Slave.” The song also is known by other names, including the “Long Haired Preacher Song” and even “The Pie in the Sky Song.”
Now Joe Hill was a labor activist who was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as I.W.W. or the Wobblies. Hill was also migrant worker and a song writer. He’s sort of like the Woodie Guthrie of his time, I guess. His songs actually were very popular, and The Preacher and the Slave became one of the most popular. He composed this song for the labor organization and it was part of a songbook that the movement put out and passed around to members and others.
The song was a parody, of sorts, on the Christian hymn, in the Sweet Bye and Bye: It’s done in the same melody but with satirical lyrics, and these lyrics were meant as a stab at the preachers of the Salvation Army, who would come around and preach to the workers, and give them all sorts of platitudes about how they would get eternal rewards in heaven for their work and suffering in this world. Hill thought their efforts to ave the souls of the workers to be quite silly, when what the workers really wanted was a job so they could feed their families and put a roof over their heads.
The original hymn, in the Sweet Bye and Bye, had a chorus that goes: “In the sweet bye and bye, We shall meet on that beautiful shore, In the sweet bye and bye, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.” The song was one of the songs in the Salvation Army Hymnbook and migrant workers would often come back to the city after having worked all day in terrible conditions, and find Salvation Army members singing this hymn to them.
I’m sure you can understand that telling workers that their lives would not really begin until they die, and that all they can hope for is suffering in the here and now, but consoling them with promises of happiness after death, was not something that was taken well. Yes, the workers suffered, and yes, the song called attention to that suffering, but the song was also saying, “Just put your heads down and keep on suffering. Don’t do anything about it because nothing can be done.” Hill had a field day with it. Hills version went: “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.”
This pie in the sky rhyme lived far beyond Joe Hill and the public picked it up, originally, to refer to promises or hopes of far off rewards that will never be attained but now has broadened in meaning. It even crossed over the Atlantic from America to Britain and is used there. Sadly, though, Hill didn’t live to know of any of this. In 1914, he was put on trial, and convicted for the murder of a former policeman and his son. A crime he almost certainly did not commit. He was executed in 1915 for it.