As Americans endured the toughest economic hardship ever recorded in modern times, the nation’s most treasured contemporary gospel song also debuted. During the Great Depression, families looked for a brief respite and found comfort in the delicate notes of Midwest songwriter and sharecropper Albert E. Brumley’s hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.” What began as a ditty to pass the time while farming turned into a song with a message of hope that would resonate with generations to come, long after its release in the 1930s.
Underneath the warm Oklahoma sun, 24-year-old Brumley worked his way through rows of cotton blossoms, picking what was ready to harvest on the farm where his family had long worked as sharecroppers. Though many in the 1920s looked down on the profession, the Brumley family was proud of their humble roots and saw the physically demanding job as a rewarding task. While Albert learned early on to value hard work, he never quite had the stature of a farmhand. As he grew up, while other boys put on muscle from field work and nourishing dinners, he stayed rather slim. That didn’t slow him down in the cotton fields, but he also had bigger dreams.
That sunny Oklahoma day in 1929 would go down in music history as the day the most recorded gospel song of all time was born. As Brumley picked his way through blooming crops, he began humming. Taking a break, he wiped sweat off his brow and looked up towards the midday sun. The quiet field’s expansive landscape was often an inspirational setting for the budding songwriter. The long days allowed his mind to wander, coming up with bits of songs in his head he’d work on later in the evening.
The heat and strenuous work were understandably wearing on him. In that moment, he had a fleeting thought and wished he could “fly away” from the fields he was tending to. Drawing on his family’s principles of honor and hard work, he quickly shook the thought of feeling sorry for himself out of his mind and took a more spiritual approach.
A Hymn Is Born
Growing up in a religious household, gospel songs came easy to Albert, who had spent many Sundays surrounded by music with his parents, singing hymns long after church was over. As he wrote pieces of lyrics in his head, he began humming an uplifting melody. Before long, a rough version of one of America’s most treasured secular hymns took shape.
Albert took the rough version of “I’ll Fly Away” to his wife Goldie, as he often did, to get her opinion. The two met in Missouri while Albert was in town with the Hartford Musical Institute teaching a traveling singing school. Goldie had a love of gospel music as well and proved to be a very talented singer like her husband, though she always insisted songwriting remained strictly his territory.
She immediately recognized the song’s potential and urged Albert to try and get the composition published. She was always Brumley’s biggest cheerleader, telling him in regard to his many already finished songs, “Any publisher would be glad to publish them.”
Despite her encouragement, he did what many great artists are notorious for doing, he procrastinated. It wasn’t in vain though. After writing the first draft in 1929, he’d spend the next few years perfecting it, making sure every part of the composition was flawless before sending it to publishers.
Five years after his first song, “I Can Hear Them Singing Over There,” was published in 1927, he got his second break, the one that would solidify his enduring legacy. Hartford Music Company published “I’ll Fly Away” in their 1932 songbook, “The Wonderful Message.”
A Healing Antidote
The year the song was published coincided with America’s worst economic downturn ever experienced, the Great Depression. As the country struggled with poverty, homelessness, and hunger, especially in the rural areas Brumley frequented, “I’ll Fly Away” was a welcomed ray of hope.
People clung to its comforting words and celebrated its message: When we “fly away,” our journey isn’t ending, it is just beginning, with eternal life.
Full of joy and spiritual promise, the song was a healing antidote to countrywide suffering.
As more and more people became inspired by the message, the song took on a life of its own. Soon, many of America’s most in-demand groups and artists were recording the hit. One of the early popular renditions many still listen to is by The Chuck Wagon Gang whose recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song’s footprint gained significant ground through the decades with country music’s biggest stars like George Jones recording covers, along with contemporary cowboy artists like Alan Jackson, who has always weaved Southern gospel into his twangy sets.
In 2000, “I’ll Fly Away” experienced yet another resurgence when the hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” included it in their soundtrack, with country and folk musicians Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch singing together on the recording. With a history of incorporating traditional hymns into their sets, bluegrass performers have played the song so much it’s now considered to be one of their “standards,” an important work that has had a substantial impact on the genre.
In 1976, when the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (a performing rights organization) presented Brumley with the first professional award he’d ever received, the song had already been covered over 950 times. By 2015, according to the I’ll Fly Away Foundation, a nonprofit that connects children with music programs, the tune has been recorded over 5,000 times.
The Everlasting ‘Ditty’
Before Brumley’s passing, when asked about the lasting effect the song has had on people in situations where they needed comfort and in moments of life’s celebrations, ever the humble songwriter he confessed he “had no idea it would become so universally popular,” while referring to the most recorded gospel song of all time simply as a “little ditty.”
Just like the hard work he put into sharecropping during his younger years, Albert spent the rest of his life dutifully writing gospel works that touched the hearts of listeners everywhere from all walks of life. With a catalog of over 800 songs written over the course of his life, Brumley was ultimately inducted into several different esteemed organizations including the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. He’s now considered to be one of the 20th century’s great American composers.