Writing Contest: Semifinalist

Song: "The Preacher and the Slave," known as "Pie in the Sky" (Joe Hill)

Jessi Holler, New Albany High School, New Albany, OH (Teacher: Kirk Hilbrands)

From the advent of civilization, music has sustained the story of mankind's perseverance.

As empires rise and fall, the songs and operas and ballads of a society record its highest values

and transmit them to the next. The annals of history are rife with stories of long-dead heroes and

governments and lovers and villains that have been quieted by the passage of time. However,

what the progression of time wipes away is preserved forever in song. The saga of America's

radical union movement, which culminated in the years just before World War I, is one such

historical phenomenon. Although lost to the majority of Americans as a significant economic

movement, the history, thoughts, and philosophies of those early twentieth century socialists,

Marxists, and syndicalists are preserved through a unique body of literature. Although the

radical labor movement--fronted by the immensely influential but short-lived "lost cause"

known as the Industrial Workers of the World--effected immediate changes in securing union

recognition, better work hours, better wages, and an end to violent strikebreaking, it also birthed

a political and economic weapon so strong that it could not be fashioned of iron or steel: the

protest song. The voice that rose higher than the rest of the I.W.W. (known as "Wobblies") in

the precarious race to organize the unorganized, unskilled workers of the nation was that of a

young immigrant named Joe Hill (Seeger 104). He traveled the nation penning songs--songs of

protest, of discontent, and ultimately of hope--and organized the rabble of the nation into a

human wall of labor solidarity. Joe Hill and his martyr's death have largely faded into the

cobwebs of cultural anachronism. However, he left a canon of more than a thousand Wobbly

anthems behind him. As a commemorative folk song by Earl Robinson proclaims, "Joe Hill

ain't never died. Where working men are out on strike, Joe Hill is at their side!" (Krull 65). The

fundamental economic and spiritual message that made up the heart of the I.W.W. resounds as

strongly today as it did a century ago because it was preserved so flawlessly in the protest songs

of socialism's "singing bard" (Kornbluh 127). Joe Hill's most widely recognized song, the

poignant and ironic "The Preacher and the Slave" (known as "Pie in the Sky"), continues to sing

of the struggles and virtues of the proletariat long after the epoch of class conflict has waned.

The songs of the Industrial Workers of the World, most notably Joe Hill's "The Preacher

and the Slave," reflect the great economic tension in turn-of-the-century American industrial

society. The advance of socialist, syndicalist, and Marxist thought in early twentieth century

America was carried forth on the strength of a wave of enduring folk songs, but reflected the

almost century-long struggle between industrial classes. After half a century of horrific fires,

squalid working conditions, unbearably low wages, and exhausting and repetitive work

schedules, the American working class jumped to the forefront of the train of progressive

thought and began to demand significant reforms. Although several concessions were granted to

large union organizations like the American Federation of Labor--which recognized and

conscripted skilled craftsworkers--no organization existed to rally the abilities and to look out

for the interests of America's unskilled and unorganized masses. Thus, in 1905, the Industrial

Workers of the World was born. The Wobblies were far more radical than any other

unionization effort born on American soil. The Wobbly Constitution was drawn from radical

European economic thought, grounded in Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, and held that labor

should collectively own the means of production. The I.W.W. set out to abolish production for

profit and wished to inaugurate a world in which trade unions controlled the government (Colin

3). The organization differed greatly from the American Federation of Labor, for it employed

direct, provocative methods--the boycott, the general strike, and musical, theatrical, and printed

propaganda--to make its demands on the American economy. At its zenith, the I.W.W. drew

some 100,000 members from the otherwise ignored migratory and unskilled workers of

America's West and South. A Swedish immigrant named Joe Hill rose to the forefront of the

I.W.W at the peak of its Golden Age. The songs that he wrote as the Wobblies' tireless

troubadour and fearless spokesperson reflect his belief not only in the essentiality of a workingclass

revolution, but in the innate goodness and dignity of the common worker.

Joe Hill penned "The Preacher and the Slave" in reaction to the gentle assurances made

by the world to the working class. The song is a parody of a popular Salvation Army hymn

("Sweet Bye and Bye"), which was sung by well-meaning preachers to Wobblies who demanded

the wealth of the world for the working class. Hill's vicious parody conveys popular attitudes

toward the unrelenting and idealistic economic demands of the I.W.W. and also encapsulates a

unique and adamant spirit of hope. The first chorus rises in mockery of the Salvation Army's

patient rhetoric: "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. (That's a lie!)" (Joe Hill's "Pie in the Sky,"

qtd. in Seeger 105). Hill, like the rest of the Wobblies, was unable to sit and wait for

government agencies to make conditions better for the working class. He fiercely believed that

man should look to the model of nature for guidance; Hill noted that when an animal was

starving, it found a way to get food. He believed that the unskilled American proletariat, if

properly organized, could have the same immediate effect. Hill's hope for the future was not

infected with the questionable, long-term idealism of other socialists and syndicalists: he aspired

not toward a vague and unattainable goal, but summoned the workers of the world to unite in

seizing a goal that was wholly within reach. "Workingmen of all countries unite," sang the

Wobblies at many of their strikes, like the Southern Pacific Railroad Strike of 1911. Hill's final

refrain continues and builds a sense of camaraderie and solidarity previously missing from

unionization movements. Where other unions failed because of ingrained racial, cultural, and

career differences, Hill's song proclaims that "...side by side in freedom we fight; when the

world and its wealth we have gained, to the grafters we'll sing this refrain!" (Seeger 105).

The spirit of "Solidarity Forever!" (as another popular Wobbly song ran) that Joe Hill's

"Pie in the Sky" inspired long outlived him and long outlived the I.W.W. The I.W.W. quickly

gained notoriety with the local and state governments of the age of Wilson. When their

leadership was confronted by vicious "scabs," the business-dispatched strikebreakers who

attacked strikers and took their jobs, walls of unified Wobblies would reply: "...we have no

leaders. WE'RE ALL LEADERS!" (Seeger 112). Despite such an assertion, the conviction of

Joe Hill in early 1915 for the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer established him forever as both

the de facto leader of the I.W.W., and the de facto leader of the hearts and minds of America's

working class (Kornbluh 128). Despite pleas from notables like Woodrow Wilson and the

daughter of the president of the Mormon Church, Utah refused to give Hill a fair trial and refused

to revoke his death sentence. Hill's last few months were spent writing letters to William "Big

Bill" Haywood, fonder of the I.W.W., and to children's choirs who would provide the future of

working class reform (Bird 142). In his final letter to Haywood, Hill modestly wrote "I have

nothing to say for myself, only that I have always tried to make this earth a little bit better" (Joe

Hill, qtd. in Seeger 110). Joe Hill, a rebel spirit to the end, gave the command to his firing

squad. His ashes were divided and spread in every state of the nation and every country of the


In sparking America's protest song movement, Joe Hill and his "Pie in the Sky" brought

the "pie" down to the working men of America. He understood the hardships of the working

class, and devoted his life to securing real and tangible advancements for the radical unionist

movement. The last words that "Big Bill" Haywood ever bequeathed to his passionate friend

are eerily prophetic: "Goodbye, Joe. You will live long in the hearts of the working class"

(Haywood, qtd. in Kornbluh 130). Although he was not directly responsible for major

legislation, Joe Hill's "The Preacher and the Slave" unified and inspired a generation--and all

subsequent generations--to take a stand for economic equality and to fight silence and

oppression with song.


Primary Sources: Quoted from Secondary Sources, Listed Below.

Secondary Sources:

Bird, Stewart, et al. Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the I.W.W. Chicago: Lake View

Press, 1985.

Conlin, Joseph Robert. Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies. Westport: Greenwood

Publishing Corp., 1969.

Gonna Sing My Head Off!: American Folk Songs for Children, ed. Kathleen Krull, New York:

Scholastic Inc., 1992.

Kornbluh, Joyce L., Rebel Voices: An I.W.W. Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan

Press, 1964.

Seeger, Pete and Reiser, Bob. Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men

and Women of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.