Joe Hill was born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in 1879, in Sweden. Like many other impoverished Europeans, he immigrated to the USA and became a migrant laborer. He traveled the country from New York to San Francisco, taking work where he could find it. In 1910 he joined the radical syndicalist union IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, nicknamed the Wobblies).
Hill was a talented singer and songwriter. He became a renowned troubadour of labor, and toured the country helping to organize workers. This was a dangerous endeavor that Hill ended up paying for with his life. In 1915, in Utah, he was framed for murder and executed.
The bosses hated the Wobblies, and intense battles for the hearts of workers were a regular occurrence. These sometimes reached the level of physical fights for control of street corners between IWW agitators and the bosses’ thugs. Other opponents were Christian organizations that sought to disarm the minds of the working people, particularly the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army targeted the IWW, preaching against them and sending their band to drown out IWW speakers.
For this reason, many of Hill’s songs attack and mock religion, and especially the Salvation Army. At the same time, the words tended to be set to famous religious tunes.
Folk singer Pete Seeger explained:
“If the Salvation Army was preaching against them from one street corner, they might set up a soapbox on the opposite corner. When the Salvation Army band started up ‘In the Sweet By and By,’ Wobblies would use it to accompany their own singing of Joe Hill’s parody, ‘Pie in the Sky’…. “
“Preacher and Slave,” which Seeger mistakenly refers to as “Pie in the Sky,” is a good example of a Joe Hill religious parody. In it, he mocks the revival hymn “In the Sweet By and By,” which encourages the downtrodden to be patient and docile in awaiting their heavenly reward, and he throws in a jab at the Salvation Army, calling them the “Starvation Army.”
The song is also the origin of our phrase “pie in the sky” (meaning something fanciful or ludicrous).
Here are the lyrics:
“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, by and by,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die
And the Starvation Army, they play,
And they sing and they clap and they pray,
Till they get all your coin on the drum,
Then they tell you when you’re on the bum”
“Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out
And they holler, they jump and they shout
Give your money to Jesus, they say,
He will cure all diseases today”
“If you fight hard for children and wife
Try to get something good in this life
You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell”
“Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain”
“You will eat, by and by,
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 by and by”
Here are some additional links:
Photo: Joe Hill from Wikipedia