What with May Day, Pete Seeger's birthday today (which is really the reason for my post--Happy 93rd Pete!), and this book I've been reading about labor-lorist Archie Green, I've been thinking a lot lately about labor movements in history. On May Day proper I attended the American Folklife Center Botkin lecture given by the author of said book, Sean Burns. There I saw my old bosses engage in inspiring discussion about folklore history, the Wobblies, and Archie and Pete's differing opinions on "folk songs" vs. "people's songs" vs. "worker songs". It seems that in Archie's eyes, even Pete was co-opting and commercializing these Wobbly songs songs a little too much.
One of the songs in question was the "Preacher and the Slave," written by Wobbly Joe Hill in 1919 and included in the Little Red Songbook. It was a parody of the Salvation Army (which the Wobblies referred to as the "Starvation Army") adopted hymn "In The Sweet By And By" and also coined the phrase "pie in the sky," as a critique of the Salvation Army and their focus on saving souls rather than on the living conditions and rights of hungry workers.
And just to follow that trajectory a bit, the phrase and concept of "pie in the sky" reappears in many subsequent protest songs and writings. A perhaps unexpected example can be found in the title track of Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, which very loosely (and I mean very loosely) deals with the oppression of the poor in Jamaica. "They tell me of the pie up in the sky, waiting for me when I die, but between the day you're born and when you die, you know they never seem to hear even your cry."
The main point of both is one that I can really get down with--instead of a pie up in the sky, why not some pie right here, right now? I hope Pete is enjoying some today.