History of Hymns: ‘Fly Away’ anticipates escape to joy of heaven

“I’ll Fly Away”
Albert E. Brumley
The Faith We Sing
, No. 2282

Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
to a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, O glory, I’ll fly away.
When I die, hallelujah, by and by,
I’ll fly away. *

Albert Edward Brumley (1905-1977) was prominent in the shape-note tradition of gospel music as a composer and a publisher.

Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Brumley picked cotton on his family farm like most young people in that day and region. His fortunes changed when he enrolled in the Hartford Musical Institute in Hartford, Ark., in 1926. Even though he did not have the financial resources to attend the school, his mentor and head of the school, E.M. Bartlett, allowed him to stay and housed him. He finished his studies in 1931 and eventually bought the Hartford Music Company in 1948.

From 1931, he spent the rest of his life in Powell, Mo., on the banks of Big Sugar Creek with his wife Goldie Edith Schell. Together they raised six children.

Albert Brumley

Many of Brumley’s songs were popular in the Stamps-Baxter tradition—named for the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, an influential publisher of shape-note gospel songbooks. The tradition was quite strong in the South, but especially in East Texas. The inexpensive song collections were often used in “singing schools” where people learned to read music through this system of notation.

The first printing of shape notes took place in William Smith and William Little’s Easy Instructor (1801). Shape-note singing used four symbols: triangle (Fa), circle (Sol), square (La) and diamond (Mi). While some churches used the books as their hymnals in worship, the books were more commonly associated with parachurch gatherings for the purpose of music education and fellowship.

In addition to “I’ll Fly Away,” Brumley wrote hundreds of other songs including “Turn Your Radio On,” “If We Ever Meet Again (This Side of Heaven),” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning” and “He Set Me Free.” A member of the Church of Christ, his work earned him induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

The Albert E. Brumley website (www.brumleymusic.com) provides the background for our song: “It was in 1929 that Brumley . . . composed ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ He recalled that he was picking cotton and singing the popular song, ‘If I had the Wings of an Angel.’ . . . Brumley was quoted as saying, ‘Actually, I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote “I’ll Fly Away.”’ That thought, of course, like the thoughts that underlay all his many songs, was based upon his own deep spiritual convictions.”

This is perhaps the quintessential gospel song that exemplifies “theological escapism”—escaping the toils of earth for the joy of heaven. Birds play prominently in the gospel song literature as do angels and flying. Their freedom from gravity symbolizes the freedom from pain, toil and tribulation. Stanza two uses the simile of freedom from earth: “Like a bird from prison bars has flown.” In contrast to “weary days” in this life, we will fly away “to a land where joys will never end.”

Some have suggested that this is the most recorded of all gospel songs. Many denominations embrace “I’ll Fly Away” including Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes and Church of Christ folk—those who are bound together by rural southern culture as much as by denominational heritage.

Of course, one cannot deny the sheer fun of singing these songs with their rousing melodies that are easily harmonized. While perhaps not the best choice for a service of worship, this is a song that works wonderfully with dinner on the grounds!

* © 1932, 1960 Albert E. Brumley & Sons, admin. by Integrated Copyright Group. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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