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A comforting country hymn? The story behind “I’ll Fly Away”

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Written nearly 90 years ago, this tune compares earthly life with prison.

While “I’ll Fly Away” was made popular in the 21st century after appearing on the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, it was originally written as a hymn, way back in 1929.

The tune was written by Albert E. Brumley, who is often described as the “pre-eminent gospel songwriter” of the 20th century. Brumley composed more than 800 gospel songs over the course of his 50-year career.

According to Wikipedia, Brumley was mulling over an old Vernon Dalhart secular tune called, “The Prisoner’s Song” while picking cotton on his father’s farm in Rock Island, Oklahoma.

Brumley says that as he worked he was “humming the old ballad that went like this: ‘If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly,’ and suddenly it dawned on me that I could use this plot for a gospel-type song.”

It was another three years until Brumley had fleshed out the full song, in which he paraphrased “Like a bird from prison bars has flown,” from “The Prisoner’s Song.” The tune compares earthly life to a prison sentence, suggesting that true freedom comes in the afterlife.

The song has been called “the most recorded gospel song,” which is accurate as it was recorded by 18 different artists prior to the 2000 release by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. For their recording, Gillian sang the lead vocal while Alison sings the backup. Their vocals meld perfectly, with a lively accompaniment which is quick to catch a discerning ear. The tune was thrust into the forefront of the early 21st century’s Bluegrass movement thanks to it’s appearance in the hit film O Brother Where Art Thou.

Since 2000, “I’ll Fly Away” has been recorded 27 times by popular artists, including: Johnny Cash, Ralph Stanley, Kanye West, The Avett Brothers, Randy Travis, and Willie Nelson. It continues to be published in hymnals and remains a popular hymn in the worship services of Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, the Churches of Christ and many Methodists

Prior to his death, in 1977, Brumley stated, “When I wrote it, I had no idea that it would become so universally popular.”

If you’d like to hear how far the tune has come, here is a 1948 recording from The Chuck Wagon Gang.

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