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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 331-336
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Joe Hill's Pie in the Sky and Swedish Reflexes of the Land of Cockaigne
Cornell University Library
Browsing the Web will reveal that the phrase pie in the sky has now taken on an existence independent of the song "The Preacher and the Slave," by Joe Hill of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the "Wobblies." It has lost its cutting humor, atheist cynicism, and, devoid of context, its social and economic relevance. In isolation, with an infantile monosyllabic rhyme and reference to dessert food, it now seems the equivalent of serendipitous gratification. 1 But the Web also offers a corrective. Michael Quinion's World Wide Words has a succinct January 2001 posting on the origin of the phrase. Hill's song dates to 1911 and was the labor organization's response to the proselytizing efforts of the Salvation Army to save working-class souls and provide some material relief to the thousands of migratory, casual, or unemployed laborers who gathered in North American cities, relief that Hill was loath to acknowledge because of ideological differences.
Targeting the Salvation Army's hymn "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," Hill wrote:
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 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. 2
By 1911, other expressions using pie had already been around for some time, such as nice as pie and easy as pie and it had begun to be used for a bribe or political patronage (of rewards being distributed like slices of pie) so pie was already in the air, so to speak. [End Page 331]
Without refuting Quinion's observation and neat kicker, 3 this note seeks to push the origin of the phrase to a time and place beyond early-twentieth-century America.
Hill was born in Gävle, Sweden, in 1879 as Joel Häggland, although he later traveled in the United States under the names Joseph Hillström and Joe Hill. Hill received some musical training in the family home; then in 1902, like so many other Swedes of his generation and before, he emigrated to the United States. How much of the traditions of Swedish popular song did he bring with him, and to which features of emigrant culture would he have been exposed?
Perhaps ultimately deriving from the "land flowing with milk and honey" promised in the Bible (Josh. 5:6), the Latin and vernacular literatures of medieval Europe exploited a motif known in English as the Land of Cockaigne. Here all physical reality is edible, as if by a variant on Midas's touch everything has been turned not golden but golden-brown, ready to eat—the first fast-food world. In some treatments, such as the eleventh-century Irish Vision of Mac Con Glinne, the author's intent seems to be to satirize monks living "too high on the hog" (Sayers 1994). Elsewhere, sloth, greed, and gullibility are the targets. A Middle English version also appeared in Ireland in about 1300, satirizing the vices of monastic life: "Fur in see bi west Spaynge Is a lond ihote Cokaygne . . . paradis be miri and bri3t, Cokaygn is of fairir si3t . . . Al of pasteiis walles, Of fleis, of fisse and richt met . . . Fluren cakes be schingles alle Of cherche . . . and halle" (Heuser 1904, 145-50; cited in the Middle English Dictionary 1952-2001, s.v. cokaigne). The sixteenth-century German poet and songwriter Hans Sachs, now best known from Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, devoted a poem to the motif under the title "Das Schlaueraffenland" (Sachs 1996, 1: 124-27). 4 Houses and fences are made of cake and sausage, the wells are full of wine, the swimming fish are...