“I’ll Fly Away”: A Brief History of the Quintessential Gospel Song (And Ten Great Renditions)
Written by Ronny Kerr
“I'll Fly Away" is likely the most recorded gospel song of all time, with over 5,000 versions sung by artists all over the world. This piece tells a brief history of this legendary song and shares ten great renditions that reveal the vast influence this tune has had across all genres.
Wisdom. Spirit. Peace.
To come to terms with death, not just in the abstract, but in the real: we’re all going to die some day. To elevate oneself above this knowledge through an influx of spirit, whether you call it “God” or “Nature” or “the universe.” To blend all this among your deepest insides and then to turn it loose in a joyful B-flat major, singing, “When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I'll fly away.”
“I'll Fly Away" is likely the most recorded gospel song of all time. Since its publication in 1932, the song has been recorded by thousands of artists and has sold millions of copies. Today there exist over 5,000 licensed recordings of the song, according to the I'll Fly Away Foundation (yes, that exists), and it has been recorded in countless languages.
As it has been for innumerable musicians and music listeners, “I’ll Fly Away” has been a treasure of life for me. Not only do I love hearing all its different permutations (from early folk recordings to hip hop renditions in the past decade), but I even confess to singing the words and melody on occasion. I am by no means anything of a singer, but the song is simply so powerful that I truly believe you become more free by singing it.
What follows is a brief history of the song and its author, as well as my ten favorite renditions. Thankfully, I’ll spare you the sound of my own voice.
A BRIEF HISTORY
The man who wrote “I’ll Fly Away,” Albert Edward Brumley, was born and raised in in rural Spiro, Oklahoma before attending the Hartford Musical Institute in Hartford, Arkansas in 1926. Three years later, he returned to Rock Island, Oklahoma (just a few miles from his birthplace) to help his family plant and pick cotton.
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.’”
In fact, as is often the case with musicians, he was inspired by a song that had been popular since 1924, “If I Had the Wings of an Angel” (or “The Prisoner’s Song”), which Johnny Cash cites as the first country song to ever sell a million records. So clearly the theme was nothing new. But there’s plenty of space in the world for songs about flying away, so Brumley continued working on the song until 1931. Finally, in the fall of 1932, the Hartford Music Company published the piece in their songbook The Wonderful Message.
The song, to its core, is gospel music. The Christian-influenced lyrics rely heavily on the image of departing life, which is full of suffering, and joining God in the afterlife. The words brim with joy, turning the stereotypical fear or sorrow of death completely on its head. In “I’ll Fly Away,” the prospect of death is a bright one. Because of the prominent lyrics, the vocal element is essential to Brumley’s hymn, as is the case with many gospel songs. Finally, the addition of harmony, through individual singers, full choirs, or instrumental accompaniment, round out the piece with that communal spirit reminiscent of church singing.
“I’ll Fly Away” is a song, like many traditional spirituals, intended to be sung by anyone and everyone. I would argue that it demands the voices of amateurs, so that they too can join in the peace and joy that it bestows. Thankfully, we have many professional, polished versions to revel in from the past century, so below I’ve presented ten of my favorites.
TEN GREAT RENDITIONS
Selah Jubilee Singers
“I’ll Fly Away” (1941)
This is one of the earliest known recordings, released less than a decade after Brumley’s song was published. The piano accompaniment is barely audible and serves basically as tuner for the outstanding harmonies of this all-male vocal crew. As indicated by their recording name, the singers infuse the song and its lyrics with all the happiness and triumph they deserve.
James and Martha Carson
Goodbye, Babylon (1951)
My personal all-time favorite. Sung by a married couple also known as the “Barn Dance Sweethearts,” this version pulls you back into the church, which is probably where most people in the 20th century first heard “I’ll Fly Away.” The guitar strumming flows fast enough to whip you off your feet, every “fly away” sounds like a bird whizzing by, and, before you know it, a full choir has joined James and Martha to shout out the joyous chorus. Hallelujah!
The Kossoy Sisters
Bowling Green (1956)
The best thing about these identical twin sisters is that, although they sound like they were plucked off some backwater Appalachian town, they were actually born and raised in New York City. All the more credit to them. Irene Saletan (mezzo soprano) and Ellen Christenson (soprano harmony), backed by Erik Darling's instrumentation, perform a steady walking pace version of "I'll Fly Away" in their characteristic close harmony style, meaning their notes are less than an octave apart. It’s pretty perfect, and was actually used in the film for O Brother, Where Art Thou? though it was superseded by the Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch version on the soundtrack.
Mississippi John Hurt
D.C. Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Volume 2 (1963)
At under a minute, this is the shortest and sparsest recording on the list. It’s nearly instrumental except for the three chorus lines he manages to sing right before the abrupt ending. So why does it belong here? Because Mississippi John Hurt, a legendary country blues singer and guitarist, makes it possible to see that the song’s strength doesn’t diminish no matter how delicately you treat it. In fact, it might grow stronger.
Okay, there isn’t a proper cover of “I’ll Fly Away” on this album. But if you listen to the closing track, “Rasta Man Chant,” you’ll hear wisps of the hymn floating through the melody and lyrics. Surely a great many ladies and gentlemen have gently flown away on the Wailers’ groovy bass and hippie bongos without knowing that their green, freeing haze was also colored by a rural-written gospel song.
No Way Out (1997)
This is another one that shouldn’t really count, but I’m including it anyway because it helps represent the influence of “I’ll Fly Away” on music and culture. The album’s penultimate track, “I’ll Be Missing You,” is Puff Daddy’s amazingly personal, almost painfully sentimental homage to his friend and fellow The Notorious B.I.G., who’d been shot to death two months prior. In fact, the gospel song is the least obvious influence on this song. The full version features a lengthy spoken intro over Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and the main sample places The Police's 1983 hit song "Every Breath You Take” front and center. But, if you stick with it to the last minute, you’ll hear the lyrics and melody of “I’ll Fly Away” sneak in. A breath of peace, seemingly out of nowhere and yet perfectly at home.
Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Because it sold over eight million copies, topped the Billboard charts, and won “Album of the Year” and “Best Soundtrack” at the 44th Grammy Awards, this soundtrack most certainly features the most famous version of “I’ll Fly Away.” With Gillian Welch (lead) and Alison Krauss (harmony) singing like angels over the expert plucking and strumming of Mike Compton (mandolin) and Chris Sharp (guitar), there’s nothing you can do but close your eyes and be filled with the utter beauty of it. By the way, there’s a live version on Down from the Mountain (2001) that’s not to be missed
My Mother’s Hymn Book (2003)
A very simple rendition that would be boring sung by anyone else. Yet above the simple guitar playing, we instantly recognize Johnny Cash’s deep bass-baritone voice crooning the words as truthfully as any of his own songs. One could almost imagine the older, more mindful, more reverent Cash returning to Folsom or San Quentin to soothe the prisoners there with this version of “I’ll Fly Away”—less raucous than his odes to freedom, perhaps, but equally powerful.
The College Dropout (2004)
This is one of the most beautiful and creative versions of “I’ll Fly Away,” and not just because it’s stripped down to gorgeous male harmonies and loungy piano (reminiscent of the Selah Jubilee Singers version from 1941). Instead, it’s because Kanye modernizes the hymn by treating it as a prelude to the track that follows, “Spaceship,” in which the rapper and John Legend convert Brumley’s hard time working in the cotton fields to a feeling we’ve all experienced at terrible jobs: “I’ve been working this graveshift / And I ain’t made shit / I wish I could / Buy me a spaceship and fly / Past the Sky.”
Precious Memories (2006)
This is where I lose all the people that “listen to everything but country.” (Johnny Cash doesn’t ever count because he’s rock & roll enough to slide by.) But there’s no denying the grace of Alan Jackson’s singing and his band’s harmonizing in this incredibly uptempo rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” With the extra emphasis on the word “God,” you get the sense that Alan Jackson is a very religious man, but this song is so much bigger than any one religion that it doesn’t matter. It goes beyond genres, both the musical kind and the spiritual kind.
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