Aweek or two back, Larry Campbell and a group consisting of Charles Garinger on bass, Jeremiah Heinrichs on percussion, Rachel Penner on piano, and Andrew Colman on trumpet, led us in what has been called the most recorded song in history, “I’ll Fly Away.” You usually hear this done with bluegrass or southern gospel accents, but the song also appears in many of the hymnals of the African-American church, and in fact it was sung at one of the black churches I attended when I was in Harlem back in January 2011. In that context, there wasn’t so much as a hint of bluegrass in their rendition…
I’d often wondered about the history of this song, so I did a bit of digging. As it turns out, the first version was written in 1929 by Albert E. Brumley, and then published in 1932. Brumley says he first conceived the song while working in his father’s cotton fields, and that it was then honed over the next few years as he taught it to various groups across Arkansas and Missouri.
The version which we sang had one verse more than Brumley’s original (the extra one is the third verse, which includes the line “No more cold iron shackles on my feet”), and I wondered if that one was perhaps more closely tied to the African-American context, though I’ve not been able to find anything by way of a history of that one verse.
- To listen to the version from saint benedict’s table, simply click the arrow:
To be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered about the theology that informs this song, specifically the idea that this created world is one from which we would want to escape by “flying away.” And doesn’t the image of flying away suggest a kind of dualistic division of body and spirit, one which is not entirely keeping with something so basic as Paul’s theology of a shared future as a resurrection people? On the other hand, from the perspective of a cotton farmer’s son in the deep south on the eve of the Great Depression, maybe these images of complete freedom and of “a land where joys will never end” have a whole other significance. Certainly for the churches in the African-American tradition which adopted this song, such promise would have been too much to resist.
So, with all of that in view, here are the words we sung out that night in our worship:Some bright morning when this life is o‘er I’ll fly away To that home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away, O, glory I’ll fly away in the morning When I die, hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
When the shadows of this life have gone I’ll fly away; Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly I’ll fly away.
Oh, how glad and happy when we meet I’ll fly away; No more cold iron shackles on my feet, I’ll fly away.
Just a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away To a land where joys will never end I’ll fly away.