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How did an Oklahoma gospel song become an international musical phenomenon?

A young Albert E. Brumley
Betsy Brumley
A young Albert E. Brumley

Like many people, I’ve been aware of the song I’ll Fly Away for years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Oklahoma in 2022 that I learned that it came from this state. It was composed in the late 1920s by a young man called Albert E. Brumley on the threshold of his musical career. It has since become one of the most recorded gospel songs of all time and has been covered by thousands of artists in multiple styles all over the world.

Brumley was born in 1905 in Indian Territory, two years before Oklahoma achieved statehood. His parents were share-croppers who lived close to Spiro on Choctaw Nation land. Gospel singing was very important to many people living in this area at that time. At a recent Bryan County Singing Convention in Durant, over a hundred people - many of them Choctaw - had traveled to enjoy gospel songs and worship together. Such conventions are relatively rare today, but when Brumley was growing up, they were everywhere. By the turn of the last century, this part of Oklahoma was already home to diverse peoples, and gospel songs were sung frequently, regardless of whether the singers were white, Black, Native American, or something else. And many of them were musically literate – meaning they were able to sight read the music in the hymnals. This was thanks to their having been trained in the shape note system – a pedagogical method to aid musical learning. In it, each note of the scale – do, re, mi, fa, so, la – is given a different shape. Roger Scott, a Choctaw pastor, is from this area and told me about his experience: “When I was a child growing up, I remember going to singings like this. A lot of our things were taken away when we were moved from Mississippi to Oklahoma and a lot of traditions were not picked back up. Also some of them were outlawed. Since they did not have those, they picked up on gospel music, and began to use that as part of their culture. Since the time I was growing up, it was all shape note singing."

A Recent Bryan County Singing Convention, Durant, Oklahoma
Rachel Hopkin
A Recent Bryan County Singing Convention, Durant, Oklahoma

By the time Roger was gaining his musical education in the 1960s, he was mostly learning at home. However, earlier in the century, the cultural importance of gospel singing was such that whole communities would come together to seek musical training. Larry O’Dell from the Oklahoma Historical Society explains, “In Oklahoma and in other frontiers, in order for groups and congregations to learn music, they would attend these schools to learn shape note singing, and these schools would last three to four weeks and usually three hours each night. And these teachers would move from town to town and do this and once it was over, the congregation could sight read."

This is how the young Albert Brumley himself learned and as Larry pointed out , he must have been very interested in it because he went to school to study it. Brumley’s ambitions in this direction had been boosted by a meeting with E. M. Bartlett. Bartlett ran the Hartford Music Institute in Arkansas where students learned to teach and compose shape note music. Betsy Brumley is the granddaughter of Albert Brumley and told me what she’d heard about this part of his life: “Grandpa decided to go and hitch-hiked from Spiro to Hartford, and he didn’t have money for tuition, he didn’t have money for anything, he just knocked on E. M. Bartlett’s door and said ‘I met you and I really want to learn how to write music.' And E. M. Bartlett saw some moxie in him or something and said ‘you’d better sleep on my couch and I’ll make you a deal – I’ll teach you this but you’re going to have to write for me until you pay back your tuition.'"

Besides being a music educator, Bartlett was also the founder of Hartford Music Company which published hymnals. For Brumley, he became a vital mentor in both the art and the business of music-making. Albert joined the Institute in 1926. In 1929, he had to return to Oklahoma to help out on the family farm and it was during that time, that the song I’ll Fly Away began to take shape in his mind. Betsy has heard stories of how this came about many times: “He was out picking cotton and if you’ve ever picked cotton, you know that it’s very painful on your fingers and he was picking by hand. And he knew he did not want to have a life of that. And he remembered the old prison hymn – ‘If I had the wings of an angel, I would fly away.' And then he took that thought and turned it into the song of I’ll Fly Away as we know it today."

Brumley was a prolific composer, writing over 600 songs, but each song typically took him several years to complete. I’ll Fly Away was no exception. He didn’t finish it until 1932. By then, he had married, moved to Missouri, and was continuing to write for the Bartlett Music Company, for whom he was contracted to deliver one song a month. Initially, it didn’t occur to him to submit I’ll Fly Away but his wife persuaded him, as Betsy told me: “If Grandma Brumley had not been in the picture, I’ll Fly Away would not have been published. He always called it ‘a little ditty.' He was looking for a song in for the September month. And grandma just said ‘well, why don’t you send I’ll Fly Away in?' and he was, like, ‘OK.' He didn’t believe in it enough, but she did. She saw his genius."

Betsy Brumley
Betsy Brumley
Betsy Brumley

I’ll Fly Away made its debut public appearance in a hymnal titled Wonderful Message. From there, it began to make its way into the world. Jeff Moore, who is the Executive Director of OKPOP , was struck by how quickly it seemed to have an impact: “Sometimes songs take a while to catch on. It seems to me that I’ll Fly Away, as soon as it was written, it spread really, really quickly. It’s on recordings by other artists within less that ten years of when he wrote it. That’s really phenomenal given the time period. It was very much word of mouth."

The first recording of the song was made in 1940 by Reverend J. M. Gates and singers in Atlanta, Georgia. Then, as more and more artists took it up, it gained steam, so much so that when The Chuck Wagon Gang (a group with a large radio following in Texas) recorded it at the end of the 1940s, their version sold over a million copies. However, according to Betsy Brumley, it wasn’t until several decades later, around the time of her grandpa’s death in 1977, that it began to evolve into the musical phenomenon that it is today: “We had 726 recordings of it in 1976, and now we have over 12,000."

In that time, I’ll Fly Away has become part of popular culture, featured in everything from The Waltons to the hit movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? In the process, it has gained meaning for people from all walks of life, regardless of their backgrounds or religious beliefs. I asked Betsy, if Brumley had ever resented this song’s unique success, given that he had written so many others. She replied: “You have to remember, grandpa was an artist, but he was also a business man and a publisher. In publishing terms, when you have a song as successful as I’ll Fly Away, you do not resent every time you get that paycheck. The music business is a business thing. People think of it as art, and it is an art, but making money with your art is a very important part of the art."

Like E. M. Bartlett before him, Brumley understood this and again, like his mentor, he also became a music publisher as Betsy mentioned – not only of his own songs and but those of other composers, too. In 1944, he founded the Albert E. Brumley & Sons Music Company. Today, over 40 years on from Brumley’s death, the Brumley Music Company (as it is now called) continues to thrive in the hands of Betsy and her siblings. And I’ll Fly Away remains under copyright. This means that every time it airs in a commercial context - be it on a CD, on Spotify, or in a TV show or or a film - rights to use the song must be cleared and royalties paid. I was curious as to whether there had ever been incidences when the song had been performed without being copyright cleared. Betsy's response was emphatic: “Yes. That would be my life of sitting in a courtroom. Happens all the time, because people assume they’re public domain and they’re not. So instead of doing their due diligence, we send them a letter saying ‘you need to pay royalties on this’ and if they don’t do it, you end up in court. We have sued everybody and their dog - we’ve sued Puff Daddy, we’ve sued the Dixie Chicks – and we’ve won because it's the music business, and we do the business side very well."

I then became intrigued as to whether there would be times when they denied requests to use the song. Betsy confirmed this to be the case: “We’ve denied lots of people use just because of context, mostly in sync licensing, which is what you do for TV and film. If the context is witchcraft, if it’s evil … I mean we have turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars, because you have to think about the integrity of the song. If you’ve got a song that is beloved, and all of a sudden it’s used with evil content or with sexual content, it changes the integrity of the song. It actually makes it less valuable."

Portrait of Albert E. Brumley
Betsy Brumley
Portrait of Albert E. Brumley

I asked Betsy to give me an example. She recalled an occasion where the company was contacted by the producers of the TV show Fargo: “They wanted to use I’ll Fly Away with a hooker singing the song as she was doing a sexual act to a man. We said 'no' of course. And it was a high five-figure amount of money. So it was a very significant amount of money that we turned down."

The Bryan County Singing Convention taking place at the Choctaw Community Center in Durant, Oklahoma, is a context that is much closer to that which the young Albert Brumley would have had in mind when he wrote I’ll Fly Away. But even here, not too far from where Brumley grew up, the song continues to accrue new meaning and significance. Towards the end of the event, a group of young people from the New Beginnings Church assembled to sing some songs. They started with a version of I’ll Fly Away sung in the Choctaw language. The New Beginnings pastor, Roger Scott, explained why he felt this to be important: “They’re saying that we’re one generation away from losing our language. It is our responsibility to keep the language going and one way we can do that is teach them those songs." I asked if it felt very different singing the song in Choctaw as opposed to English. Roger replied: “I believe the Choctaw language, it kind of gets hold of the spirit of it for me. And when I look at these kids. I saw them when they were little ones. And now here they are, 16 or 17 years old. And they’re about to go out into the world. But they can take that song with them wherever they go. It just makes me so proud that they can sing their own language. And that gives me a warm feeling right here."

Special thanks to Zane Harding, Tobin Bawinkel, and Katelyn Howard.

How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden and David Graey composed the theme music. If you have an Oklahoma-related question, email curious@kgou.org. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on your favorite podcast app.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

This episode includes performances of I’ll Fly Away by the following artists:

Reba McEntire
Georga (version titled Jag Flyger Hem)
Flatfoot 56
Robson Pires, XMAILIN, Kevin Kruise, Alex Perez, Nicholas Delgado, and Maíra De França
All Angels
Sweet Jazz Popeye
Reverend J. M. Gates and singers
The Original Chuck Wagon Gang
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack)

Rachel is a British-born and U.S.-based radio producer and folklorist with a passion for sound and storytelling. At KGOU, she is host and producer of the How Curious podcast and various special projects.
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