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“I’ll Fly Away”

Ten miles west of the Oklahoma-Arkansas border lies the small town of Spiro, Oklahoma. It was two years before Oklahoma became a state when a baby named Albert E. Brumley was born.

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Growing up in rural Oklahoma, Brumley was born to sharecroppers who picked cotton olike many young people in that day and region. It was not an easy life.

With $3 in his pocket, he walked twenty miles to 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. Goldie encouraged him to send his manuscripts to a publisher, assuring him that the songs had quality and that “any publisher would be glad to publish them.”

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Anyone who has performed any bit of farm work understands the intense physical and mental labor involved, so there can be no doubting this quote of Brumley’s: “Actually, I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote ‘I’ll Fly Away.’” However, it took on a spiritual meaning, as it became a favorite gospel song.

“I’ll Fly Away,” has been played and sung in some of the nation’s largest auditoriums and presented by one of our country’s most popular music organizations, The Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. Chet Atkins was the guitar soloist for that presentation.  5,000 versions have been sung by artists all over the world.

Brumley’s rural background made it natural for him to appeal to the common man. Even as a small lad picking cotton in LeFlore County, Oklahoma, he knew he would much rather be involved in music than in any other occupation. As the old saying goes, “it was in his blood.”

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It was published in “The Wonderful Message.”

Acting on Goldie’s advice and encouragement, his first submission to a publisher was “I’ll Fly Away.” As a result, this song, written during The Depression, was carried to the nation by radio and traveling Southern Gospel quartets. People everywhere were receiving renewed hope as they listened to “I’ll Fly Away.”

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A Shel Silverstein said, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.”
― Shel Silverstein

 

Perhaps the scripture, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest.” Psalm 55:6, might have influenced the writing.

Of course, one cannot deny the sheer fun of singing these songs with their rousing melodies that are easily caught by children and adults. Whether in a concert, family get- togethers, or in a church service, singers become participants with this song. There is smiling, patting of feet, and clapping of hands. We used to sing it as a family on our car trips. This simple song has a message that literally carries an audience away. In church, I have heard song leaders say the words of introduction, “Let’s sing a song everyone knows.” Guess which one that is?

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Among the impressive artists who have shared “I’ll Fly Away” are Jerry Lee Lewis, Kanye West, George Jones, Randy Travis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Sounds of Blackness, Alan Jackson, Crystal Gayle, Jars of Clay, Charley Pride. Loretta Lynn, Andy Griffith, and Elvis Presley.

Alison Kraus sang “I’ll Fly Away” at a concert at Converse College here in Spartanburg about twenty-five years ago. I bought tickets for them to attend, and they both returned smiling. The concert was sold out. You might want to listen to her and Gillian Welsh share it here in the “Brother, Where Art Thou?” Soundtrack.

Albert Brumley’s words matched his song lyrics. It is my conviction and “blessed hope,” too. And, yes, it will be a glad morning….

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Spending years writing and tinkering with melodies and lyrics, Albert Brumley wrote over 700 songs. This country gospel world owes much to this composer, as do we.

My grandmother used to sing “Turn Your Radio On” when she was dusting the farmhouse at Mirror Lake Farm. And, yes, that petite red head kept the rhythm with her feet. Guess who the composer of that popular song was? Mr. Albert E. Brumley….

 

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“I’ll Fly Away”

I can picture my Granny (great grandmother Justus) singing when she was snapping beans in her back yard.

She sat in a white iron chair. She held a white, porcelain bowl in her lap and threw the bean snips on the ground. Another bent tin bowl held the beans from her garden was beside the chair. Her apron kept her dress clean, because there was plenty of dirt on the beans from the garden patch.

Her foot would keep rhythm to any song she was singing. “I’ll Fly Away” was one of her favorites, and I learned to clap, as she sang. Granny would smile, as she sang, and those smiles reached her eyes.

Born and raised in Hendersonville, North Carolina, she loved keeping house. There was a sense of welcome and love that I can’t explain that came to greet her and Pop’s guests. They lost so much during the Depression. Even taking in boarders to their house at Laurel Cliff could not stay the selling of the land and house for taxes. They rented that five-room house.

Granny and Pop had eight children that lived to adulthood, and most of them lived in Hendersonville. Almost every Sunday afternoon, they all showed up at their parents’ home, as well as grandchildren and great grands. Granny always had cake, cookies, and coffee ready to serve. As the talking died down, often singing would begin. The hymns they sang at church were the hymns they sang at home. This was another favorite.

There was trust, faith, and hope on their faces and in their singing. This mountain family worked hard with their manual labor and never had much in the way of money. But they loved Jesus, their family, and other people.

Granny spent her last years in the local nursing home. She seldom knew her family members-not even her own children. She held a doll most of the time and talked to it, like it was one of her babies. But any time the home had someone come in to play the piano she’d sit right there and sing every word of every old gospel song they played. She didn’t know her children-but those songs of faith that guided her through her long long life were still there for her to call upon. It was amazing to me as a child to watch the transformation.

As I did the research about John’s Appalachian family, I heard stories of similar trust. They made-do with little, as they worked in upstate cotton mills. Another trait I found that was similar was their choice to not be beholden to anyone, but their hands were always out to help others. They all lived generous lives.

In May, Tales of a Cosmic Possum will be released, and you can read the short stories of eight of the women in John’s family. Yes, there are lyrics to their favorite songs and Appalachian sayings and recipes. It is chock full of life descriptions of living in a mill village or in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

One of my granny’s sayings was “Don’t git too big for your britches.” It took me a long time to understand what on earth this meant, but it is still good advice today. As we tell our family’s stories, they won’t be forgotten, and we won’t get too big for our britches.