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Albert E. Brumley

Albert E. Brumley
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle
Albert E. Brumley
From the PorchBy Amber Nagle

Over the weekend, I thumbed through an old tattered hymnal that once belonged to my grandmother, Maggie Mae Lanier. The paperbound book was published in 1946 by WMAZ, a radio station out of Macon, and showcased over 200 songs sung by the Smile-A-While quartet. The pages were dark and weathered from time. Still, I knew many of the hymns in the collection and hummed them in my head with each turn of the page.

That’s when I noticed a man’s name in the top right corner of many of the musical scores: Albert E. Brumley.

I sat down in front of my computer and typed the man’s name into Google, then read the headlines and summaries.

“Albert Edward Brumley, Sr., was one of the most successful American Southern gospel song composers of the 20th century, penning such standards as ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Turn Your Radio On.’” Why wasn’t his name familiar to me? I kept reading.

Born in 1905 into a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers, Brumley was a skinny kid with a rich bass voice. In 1926, he left the family farm and traveled to Arkansas to meet Eugene Monroe Bartlett, owner of the Hartford Music Company and the composer of the hymn, “Victory in Jesus.” Formal musical training was an unfathomable luxury for a poor country boy like Brumley. Still, wearing the only suit he owned and with just $2.50 in his pocket, Brumley found the music man and asked for his help.

“Mr. Bartlett, I hear that you’ll teach a fella how to sing and how to write music. I’ve come to learn,” he said, before explaining to the music executive that he didn’t have money for tuition, room, or board.

After looking the young man up and down, Bartlett’s kind nature kicked in and he said, “Well, in that case you better go over to my house and board.”

And that’s how Albert E. Brumley’s music career began — on a wing and a prayer. He began composing “I’ll Fly Away” in 1929, as he picked cotton at his family’s farm in Rock Island, Oklahoma, and thought about flying away from the field. In a later interview, he said he was, “humming an old ballad that went like this: ‘If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly,’ and suddenly it dawned on me that I could use this plot for a gospel-type song.”

It took Brumley three years to work out the other parts of his now famous hymn, and then he sat on it for a while. His wife, Goldie, encouraged him to send it to a music publisher, and the rest is glorious musical history.

“When I wrote it, I had no idea that it would become so universally popular,” he said in numerous interviews.

That one hymn became what most believe to be the most-recorded gospel song of all time — a timeless, classic hymn that holds a cherished place in the hearts of millions around the world. It has transcended generations and denominations (frequently used in worship services by Baptists, Methodists, Nazarenes and more). On top of that, people with no religious affiliation and from all walks of life embrace its lyrics and melody. It’s not just about graduating from our earthly boundaries and embracing the promise of eternal life in glory, it’s a humanitarian anthem encapsulating the human longing for freedom, hope, liberation, and salvation. It helps us envision a way out of the darkness and into the light.

Brumley went on to publish over 600 songs before dying in 1977, and you’d know many of them if I named them all, but none compare to “I’ll Fly Away.” Almost 100 years later, it has stood the test of time, like John Newton’s 1772 classic “Amazing Grace” or Carl Boberg’s 1885 hymn titled, “O Store Gud,” which later became “How Great Thou Art.” Why isn’t his name a household name, especially in the South? So today, I want to give a big shout out to Albert Edward Brumley. Thank you for your joyous, comforting words! Thank you for your gift.

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