I grew up at a time when church music was changing from traditional hymns and gospel to contemporary pop-style songs. One of the old songs I’ve heard countless times is “I’ll Fly Away,” which to me — years removed from church-going and religious belief — represents both what was good and what was bad about the Christian culture from which it emerged.
“I’ll Fly Away” is said to be the most recorded gospel song in history. One of the better-known recordings was made by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss for the motion picture soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
Growing up with the song, I never really paid it close attention until I was older. It wasn’t a favorite of mine, just another old-timey hymn for old-timey people:
Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away (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 (I’ll fly away).
I didn’t realize how strange it was to be singing joyfully about looking forward to death — and not even a death near at hand, but one that waits on “some glad morning” in the indefinite future. The second and third verse sketch in a sense of hopeful desolation: When the shadows of this life have gone / I’ll fly away /Like a bird from prison bars has flown / I’ll fly away; and, Just a few more weary days and then / I’ll fly away / To a land where joy shall never end /I’ll fly away.
I can’t think of another popular song that expresses so concisely this sense of devout world-weariness and profound dissatisfaction with life. Were it not so resigned and passive, it would be suicidal.
What sort of person would write these words?
I assumed it would be somebody old and broken down by life, but I was mistaken. Albert E. Brumley turned twenty-four in 1929, the year he wrote this song. The son of an Oklahoma sharecropper, Brumley went on to become a highly successful gospel songwriter. He said he got the idea for this song while picking cotton and humming a popular ballad called the “Prisoner’s Song,” in which the narrator tells his love that he’s going to prison. The final verse, which begins, Now, if I had the wings of an angel / Over these prison walls I would fly, finds its echo in Brumley’s Like a bird from prison bars has flown.
That still doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer for Brumley’s inspiration, at least not if you assume that it must be autobiographical. But songwriting can just as easily be an act of imagination and empathy — sometimes by a young and relatively inexperienced artist. Johnny Cash had never even spent a night in jail when he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” and Laura Nyro wrote “And When I Die” (a 1969 hit for Blood, Sweat and Tears) when she was only seventeen.
I think Brumley’s main sources were probably the universality of human suffering plus the peculiar nature of Christian culture.
Any song as enduringly popular as “I’ll Fly Away” has to be saying something a lot of people identify with.
Traditional country music — not so much today — had a lot to say about suffering. It wasn’t known as “cry in your beer” music for nothing. And any song as enduringly popular as “I’ll Fly Away” has to be saying something a lot of people identify with. Life can be hard. Sometimes you just ache for a time and place when things will be better.
Amid all the talk of heaven, there’s an emotional rawness in “I’ll Fly Away” that you rarely hear in today’s Christian music (at least not in the bits I hear on the radio or when visiting relatives’ churches). Today it’s mostly monotonous praise, Bible clichés, and no mention of sorrow without an immediate assurance that God makes it all better. True, the god of this song also makes it better, but maybe not in this lifetime.
However, Brumley’s lyrics also represent a profound rejection of life, which he paints as a prison from which a believer hopes to escape. This may give comfort to the suffering, but it does so by denigrating life itself.
Denigrating the world, and despising this life and this body, has long been a big part of Christian culture. When I was growing up, calling something “worldly” was a way of putting it down. Even when the worldly wasn’t strictly immoral, it had no eternal value and was to be treated accordingly. Granted, this was applied selectively (more likely to be invoked against culture than against wealth, for example) and never with total commitment, but over time it had its cheapening effect. This life was not the only life we have, a brief but complex fabric of joy, sorrow, and wonder, something to be savored; it was a preparation for the hereafter. It was something to be gotten though and then left behind, like a school, or a prison.