I have a love/hate relationship with the song “I’ll Fly Away. I sing it at just about every jam session I attend and, quite frankly, I had gotten a bit tired of it. During the pandemic I sang it at one funeral and heard it at two others. Every time we do it at the Pickens Flea Market it’s well-received. Here’s a sample recorded by one of our listeners this past summer from the flea market…
Here’s another rendition from the Gramling Opry House in Spartanburg County…
First, my history with the song…
Growing up, “I’ll Fly Away” was never in our church hymnal. However, we had several auxiliary camp meeting song books that contained Gospel songs in the Stamps-Baxter tradition. In addition to “A Beautiful Life”, “Great Speckled Bird”, “Turn Your Radio On”, and “Royal Telephone”, there was “I’ll Fly Away.” To us these weren’t serious hymns, but oddities. Base more on emotion and modern analogy rather than scripture, these songs were fun to sing, but imparted no real theology. I can understand why they weren’t in the hymnal.
“I’ll Fly Away” became one of our family traditions. We would sing it during our family gatherings, but it never played a part in church services. When I started playing sessions later I was surprised to find it so popular with everyone. It seems that it’s gained popularity in recent years. I attended a funeral just this past week in a Baptist church and found the song in their hymnal.
According to the Oklahoma Historical Society…
The gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” is one of America’s most widely sung and recorded songs. It is also popular worldwide. Its author, native Oklahoman Albert Brumley, wrote more than six hundred songs and has been called “the Dean of Gospel Songwriters.” He was born to sharecroppers William and Sarah Williams Brumley on October 29, 1905, near Spiro, Choctaw Nation. His family entered Oklahoma Territory in the 1889 Land Run but eventually settled in southeastern Oklahoma. They raised their son in a musical and religious environment.
When Brumley was approximately seventeen, he attended a singing school. Usually lasting three weeks, these schools were led by itinerant teachers who taught shape-note singing, also known as fa-sol-la singing. Each of the seven notes has a distinctive geometric shape, and those who are proficient will see the tune instead of reading the notes. Religious/gospel songs primarily used the shape-note style. While attending the school, Brumley became interested in composing.
In 1926 he attended the Hartford Musical Institute, a shape-note and gospel-song composing school, in Hartford, Arkansas. There he met many well-known popular gospel singers and composers and made lifelong friendships. He then became an itinerant singing-school teacher as well as a composer. In 1931 he married Goldie Schell and settled in Powell, Missouri, where he eventually owned his own publishing company.BRUMLEY, ALBERT EDWARD (1905–1977)
As for his most famous song, Brumley derived his inspiration from “The Prisoner’s Song”, a secular song popular at the time. The last verse is especially reminiscent of “I’ll Fly Away.”
Now if I had wings like an angel
O-ver these prison walls I would fly
And I’d fly to the arms of my poor darlin’
And there I’d be willing to die
Once again, the Oklahoma Historical Society has this to say…
Brumley claimed that while picking cotton, he was humming the “Prisoner’s Song” and decided it would make a great gospel tune. It took him three years to finish and was published in 1932 as “I’ll Fly Away.” Brumley had to sue the Recording Corporation of America (RCA) three times for royalties, as so many people sang the song that the company thought it was in the public domain. He also wrote “Turn Your Radio On,” which became popular among country singers. Other songs are “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning,” “If We Never Meet Again,” and hundreds more.
“I’ll Fly Away” took off, so to speak. It’s been recorded over hundreds of times and now appears in multiple Protestant hymnals.
Alfred Brumley’s legacy continues with the Brumley Music Company, run by his descendants. Last held in 2017, The Brumley Gospel Sing featured many of his songs. The “I’ll Fly Away Foundation” seeks to get children more involved in music. It provides music scholarships as well as song writing opportunities and competitions for students.
The Baptist hymnal had linked 2 Corinthians 5:8 to the song – “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” However, that text is only tangentially related to the song. The song has little to do with scriptures at all. In fact, the text is so generic that it could hardly be considered Christian at all. The only religious phrases are “God’s celestial shore..” (which god? where?) and repetition of the phrases “hallelujah” and “O glory” in the chorus. The imagery could be used with just about any faith. It reminds me of some of the old spirituals that had a double meaning, a life after death or a life of freedom from slavery.
But maybe that’s the song’s appeal. Its themes of universal longing apply to so many situations. The tune is catchy and easy to remember. Like so many great bluegrass hits, it leaves room for instrumental improvisation. It can be as complicated or as simple as one desires. Sure, it can get old, but so can any song played often enough. Even so, I’m sure that as long as I continue to attend jam sessions with my banjo I’ll be playing “I’ll Fly Away.”