Albert E. Brumley (1905-1977) faced a few more weary hours of picking cotton on his parents’ farm, when he started humming a country music hit called “The Prisoner’s Song.” “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly. I’d fly to the arms of my darling, and there I’d be willing to die.”
Sweating and singing in rural, pre-Dust Bowl Oklahoma, Brumley imagined flying away from his hard scrabble life, but not to the arms of a sweetheart.
Steeped in the culture of gospel singing, he imagined flying right into the arms of God … some bright morning. That’s how “I’LL FLY AWAY” came into the world.
Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away
Brumley had composed his first gospel song when he was 16. A shy, skinny kid, he enjoyed singing with his family after supper and at church, often accompanied by his fiddle-playing father.
When he was 21, he took what little money he had and left the farm, set on studying music composition with Eugene Monroe Bartlett, owner of the Hartford Musical Institute. Brumley showed up at the Arkansas office with only $2.50 to his name.
Bartlett, impressed with the young man’s determination, waived the tuition fee and let him board for free. Soon, Brumley was performing, teaching music, and composing both sacred and secular songs. It was during a break in this busy life that he returned to help in the cotton fields and composed “I’ll Fly Away.”
In 1931 he married one of his music students, Goldie Schell. They settled down in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and raised six children. Albert composed hundreds of songs, eventually bought the Hartford Music Company, and is credited with shaping the modern gospel music industry.
From Jazz Funerals to Football Games
“I’ll Fly Away” is thought to be the most recorded gospel song in history. It’s been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to John Legend, Willie Nelson to Etta James, Aretha Franklin to Dolly Parton, the Blind Boys of Alabama to the Kalamazoo Barbershop Chorus. It’s been used in movies and TV shows.
In Louisiana, brass bands parade through the streets of the Big Easy in jazz funerals. After a few mournful dirges, the band transitions to something brassy and jubilant. People join in, “second-lining,” strutting, twirling parasols, most often singing “Some bright morning when this life is o’er ….” with a raucous mix of joy and tears. “I’ll Fly Away” is played so often, some consider it an unofficial anthem of the Big Easy.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, on the last day of the chaos in the Superdome, a few musicians found each other. Their talking morphed into a bluesy rendition of “I’ll Fly Away. From the disaster of the arena, where 20,000 exhausted, despairing people were packed together, rose the words of Brumley’s old hymn, a celebration of the end of suffering and release from pain.
The song followed them out of the arena and into the streets in the weeks after the storm. Preservation Hall’s creative director, Ben Jaffe, told a reporter, “It became almost like a battle cry … When the band would break into it, everybody knew the words, everybody felt like a sense of identity, a sense of community, a sense of place.”
In Alabama, after home football games at predominantly white Jacksonville State University, 400+ members of the marching band, color guard, and dancers lock arms and lead the stadium full of spectators in singing a slow, harmonized arrangement of “I’ll Fly Away.” It is their tradition to pause the singing and shout the words at the top of their lungs — “IN THE MORNING!”
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: ‘Fly Away’ Anticipates Escape to Joy of Heaven” by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship website
“Albert Brumley” on Oklahoma Music Trail website
“I’ll Fly Away” post-Katrina article by Jennifer Odell, on 64 Parishes website, project of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities