I'll Fly Away
Origins. When Albert Brumley (1905–1977) was young, growing up in Spiro, Oklahoma, a singing teacher encouraged Brumley to get further musical training and recommended the Hartford Musical Institute, part of the Hartford Music Company owned by Eugene M. Bartlett (1885–1941), in nearby Arkansas. Brumley began his studies in January of 1926 and stayed until the spring of 1927, then returned home to help on the family farm. During his layaway from the Institute, Brumley got the idea for his most famous song:
I thought of the theme and started working on it while I was picking cotton in 1928. I was out in the field by myself—or at least there wasn’t anyone close to me—and I got to humming this old song, “The Prisoner’s Song.” Where it says, “if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly,” . . . well, it suddenly dawned on me that I could use the world for a prison and heaven for freedom when we pass on. And I started working on that theory. You’ll notice in one stanza of “I’ll Fly Away” it says, “when the shadows of this life have grown, I’ll fly away, like a bird from prison bars has flown,” I paraphrased that from the old “Prisoner’s Song.”
“The Prisoner’s Song” is a love song in which the singer laments his loneliness on the eve of his imprisonment, his impending separation from his beloved darling, and his wish for escape. Its authorship is somewhat disputed but is credited to Robert Massey, copyrighted in the name of his brother, Guy Massey, first recorded by Vernon Dalhart for Victor Records in 1924, and published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co. that same year (PDF).
Brumley returned to Hartford by the end of 1928 and continued to work on “I’ll Fly Away” while earning a job as a staff songwriter and a member of the Hartford Quartet. The song was first published in The Wonderful Message (1932 | Fig. 1). Brumley’s success enabled him to establish his own publishing company in Powell, Missouri, and in turn purchase the Hartford Music Company, thereby reclaiming all the rights to his most famous song.
Analysis. The hymn is in three stanzas, and it contains both an interlinear refrain (the responsive “I’ll fly away” after each line of the verses) and a full refrain. In stanza one, the “celestial shore” could either refer to the sea of glass in Revelation 4:6 or the river of life in Revelation 22:1-2. The prison bars of stanza two were inspired by “The Prisoner’s Song,” but they could be likened to the resurrection of the body described in 1 Corinthians 15, or they could be a spiritualized nod to the escape of Peter from jail in Acts 12 or Paul and Silas in Acts 16. In stanza three, the “land where joys shall never end” is likely a reference to the removal of the curse and the endless days of Revelation 22:3-5. The song was printed in shape notes, using the seven-shape system developed by J.B. Aikin for his Christian Minstrel (1846). The style of the song has leant itself best to Southern Gospel, country, and bluegrass renditions, but it has also been successfully adapted to other styles.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
16 August 2018
Kay Hively and Albert E. Brumley Jr., I’ll Fly Away: The Life Story of Albert E. Brumley (Branson, MO: Mountaineer Books, 1990), p. 26.
“I’ll Fly Away” at Hymnary.org:
“The Prisoner’s Song,” National Jukebox, Library of Congress: