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Shelby Bottom Duo

How Joe Hill came to coin Pie in the Sky

When Christine Blasey Ford spoke of sound-memories embedded in the hippocampus she was attempting to explain principles of cognition to old men whose religion eschews science.

Saturday night in the Integrity House at The Farm we all gathered to a performance of the Joe Hill Roadshow by the Shelby Bottom Duo. The Integrity House is an old-timey microtheatre somewhat resembling the 1920s Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; ornamental curtains, stained glass and slow-whirling ceiling fans, wooden pews navigating a maze of columns supporting balustraded balconies, and superb acoustics.

The Joe Hill Roadshow is an narrative musical, weaving the audience through the life and times of the immortal labor activist with sing-along choruses penned by Hill himself. One of those I found especially striking.

The Preacher and the Slave
Sung to the tune of In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

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 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

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 are on the bum

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

Last Chorus

You will eat, bye and bye
When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry
Chop some wood, ‘twill do you good
And you’ll eat in the sweet bye and bye

Its a lie!

Joe Hill

The back story on this song is that during the first decade of the 20th Century the IWW was organizing unions across the nation, using rousing anthems by Hill and others to inspire workers to join the cause. In Chicago the bosses hired a brass Salvation Army Band to drown out the a Capella Wobblies, so Hill wrote this song especially for those occasions.

When we all joined in on the chorus,

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

Nell Levin explained that this is where the expression “Pie in the Sky” came from.

This year I’ve recommended several books, but two in particular seem to keep bouncing back into my meditations in some way. Those are The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann, and How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan.

To those I would add another I reviewed here last year, Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, that rattles my brain like a pinball that won’t go down the hole.

The trouble I have seeing the world through the lens of a union organizer like Joe Hill invariably comes back to a human attribute that lies at the root of so many of our problems, and which Junger exposed so well in Tribe. We are herd animals.

The decision to hunt in packs like wolves and lions rather than as solitary individuals like bears was made millions of years ago, possibly when we were pond slime or still up in trees but not yet lemur-like (lemurs are herders). The strategy confers distinct advantages, as you can see in harems of zebras crossing a crocodile-filled stream or bunched together to ward off night predators, but it also carries some nasty baggage, as witness recent gang wars in Chicago or German exceptionalism in the run-up to World War II.

Another book I reviewed here a year ago introduced us to Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s “Mind over Reality” theory. Denial tells the story of a different fork in our evolution giving us the mental flexibility to cope with realization of our own mortality, typically with illusions of life after death, other dimensions of existence, or individualistic exceptionalism.

In The Preacher and the Slave, Joe Hill went after The Salvation Army (he called them “The Starvation Army”) for offering pie in the sky instead of soup for the hungry. It is notable that 20 years later The Salvation Army became famous for crossing that very bridge, with its bread lines and soup kitchens in the Great Depression.

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The stage at Integrity House sends a number of tribal loyalty signals, from a 1960 campaign poster for Jack Kennedy to a Chicago Cubs banner.

And yet Hill, not unlike the Shelby Bottom Duo, fell into the same trap as others who employ our tribal gene to their own strategic advantage: they set “workers” off in a separate category of humans from “bosses.” When POTUS rails at the UN General Assembly about American Exceptionalism, he is playing to his base among the downtrodden in the Rust Belt who have been told their jobs were taken by the Chinese, and actually believe that. When POTUS enacts his Muslim Ban, he is playing to his base in the Religious Right (it should really be called the Religious Wrong) that is committed to Christianity über alles (John 3:16). When Senate Republicans vote to confirm a misogynistic Supreme Court justice, they are only taking one for the tribe, knowing the tribe will reward them in Valhalla, if not the next election.

The tribal gene is frequently employed by despots, but if you trace back the origins of über alles in music, it comes from the German national anthem from 1922 to 1945, Die Deutschlandlied. The anthem is from the German linguist and poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben set to a Hadyn hymn written in 1797 for the birthday of Francis II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The first two, more racist and sexist, stanzas were deleted after the West German Republic (later Germany) re-adopted the anthem in 1952 and again in 1990.

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt,
Wenn es stets zu Schutz und Trutze
Brüderlich zusammenhält.
Von der Maas bis an die Memel,
Von der Etsch bis an den Belt,
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt!

[Germany, Germany above all,
Above all in the world,
When, for protection and defense,
It always stands brotherly together.
From the Meuse to the Neman,
From the Adige to the Belt,
Germany, Germany above all,
Above all in the world!]

Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang
Sollen in der Welt behalten
Ihren alten schönen Klang,
Uns zu edler Tat begeistern
Unser ganzes Leben lang.
Deutsche Frauen, deutsche Treue,
Deutscher Wein und deutscher Sang!

[German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song
Shall retain in the world
Their old beautiful chime
And inspire us to noble deeds
During all of our life.
German women, German loyalty,
German wine and German song!]

Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Für das deutsche Vaterland!
Danach lasst uns alle streben
Brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!
Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit
Sind des Glückes Unterpfand;
Blüh’ im Glanze dieses Glückes,
Blühe, deutsches Vaterland!

[Unity and justice and freedom
For the German fatherland!
Towards these let us all strive
Brotherly with heart and hand!
Unity and justice and freedom
Are the foundation of happiness;
Flourish in the radiance of this happiness,
Flourish, German fatherland!]

The intention of von Fallersleben, Haydn and reformed Germany was not to further divide the world but to celebrate overcoming factions and achieving unity in common cause. Haydn was celebrating the Holy Roman Empire that brought unity to long-warring Europe. Von Fallersleben was egging on a German unification that would overcome loyalties to the local kingdoms, principalities, duchies and palatines endlessly bickering and letting blood.

The opening line of the third stanza, “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (“Unity and Justice and Freedom”), is widely considered to be the national motto of Germany, although it has never been officially adopted. It appears on Bundeswehr soldiers’ belt buckles (replacing the earlier “Gott mit uns” — “God with Us” — of the Imperial German Army and the Wehrmacht). “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” appeared on the rim of earlier 2- and 5- Deutsche Mark coins and currently can be found on 2-Euro coins minted in Germany.

Pulling in those other books I mentioned, The Wizard and The Prophet is about how tribal divisions have hampered communications between engineers and naturalists, such that two diametrically opposed world views now obscure our vision, threatening human survival. How to Change Your Mind provides a case in point: the mindless war against psychedelics, or more specifically, the prohibition on elevated states of consciousness, borne of religious dogma and legislatures’ loyalties to rote Boy Scout codes. The more people experience these states, especially young people, the more bankrupt become the philosophical underpinnings of authority. Both Wizard and Mind expose civil wars going on just below the surface, fighting for separate world views at the expense of unity in the face of a common threat — near term human extinction. Our tribal gene impels us towards one of these poles, where we align with the most compatible team and join the war on their enemy.

When Christine Blasey Ford, in her Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, spoke of sound-memories embedded in the hippocampus she was attempting to explain principles of cognition to old men whose religion eschews science. Their response was, huh?

“…[T]he level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that sort of, as you know, encodes ― that neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus, and so the trauma-related experience then is kind of locked there whereas other details kind of drift….”

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two….”

These embeds are not proof. See Memory Distortion and False Memory Creation by Elizabeth Loftus, or No Crueler Tyrannies: Accusation, False Witness, and Other Terrors of Our Times by Dorothy Rabinowitz. But Blasey Ford was accurately describing how psychologists now think cognition works, and it was completely lost on her intended audience. When your body releases adrenaline in response to stress, almost simultaneously your brain releases norepinephrine in your amygdala, the almond-shaped structure in the brain which perceives and responds to danger. Norepinephrine strengthens the memory of the threat to make you better able to avoid or escape it the next time. That burst also dims or blots memories on either side of the trauma. Whether POTUS chooses to mock the phenomenon or not, it is biology.

Are the copper bosses who killed Joe Hill the enemy? As long as we keep thinking that, we’ll have no chance to unify enough to recognize and counter the real threat: our genetic baggage, including tribalism, denial and manipulated memory, including cultural memory. Epigenetics, moderated by diet, environment and the microbiome, offers some clues about how we might chose to switch off our worst instincts and select those that favor survival. Psychedelics lift the veil on cultural conditioning.

Pollan poses an interesting challenge, asking whether the antonym to “spiritual” is “material” as commonly assumed by the hippies, or whether it is “ego.” If there is a rescue remedy for our collective death wish, it will likely be found there, by tempering many of the things we hold most sacred, including entrusting identity to tribe.

Culture must begin to speak of the whole of humanity, or even of all life, as our tribe. Imagine there’s no countries, and no religion, too. Is that pie in the sky? Or is it, as Joe Hill wrote:

When I hear that melody, with its rhythmic harmony,
Then I feel just like I’d be in a dream entrancing,
And I’d like to float through space, softly glide from place to place,
With the fascinating grace of a fairy dancing.

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Emergency Planetary Technician and Climate Science Wonk — using naturopathic remedies to recover the Holocene without geoengineering or ponzinomics.

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