Thanksgiving Freedom with Caroline Shaw’s “By and By”
Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away.
Albert E. Brumley had no idea the song would become so popular, would resonate so boldly with people’s spirits or, much later, would inspire a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer to give it a stunning arrangement.
He also had no idea his song might end up joining your Thanksgiving festivities.
It was 1929. America was about to head into a decade of serious trouble. The 24-year-old Brumley was picking cotton one day on his father’s Oklahoma farm and humming to tune from “The Prisoner’s Song,” one of the most popular songs of the 1920s.
The song’s poetic speaker dreams of breaking free from jail. The text is pretty straightforward, though you could interpret “jail” metaphorically to mean anything that holds body, spirit and soul captive.
Brumley realized that day in the cotton field that he could make a great gospel song by putting a spiritual spin on that prison story.
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.
Three years later, Brumley had finished creating “I’ll Fly Away.” That year, the song was published in The Wonderful Message, a songbook published by Hartford Music Company, in Hartford, Arkansas.
In the late 1930s, “I’ll Fly Away” started making its way into hymnals. The Selah Jubilee Singers made the first known recording of the song in 1941, and the song’s appearances in hymnals jumped.
As important as the song’s message may have been to the people struggling to survive during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the message is as relevant today as it has ever been. Maybe Jack Nicholson said it best in the role of the misanthropic Melvin Udall when, with a masterful blend of insight, fear and resignation, he asked, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
Think of the problems of our world. What if this is as good as it gets?
I’ll fly away, o glory, I’ll fly away.
Since the rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” by Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch appeared in the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the song has found new footing in performance.
Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch sing “I’ll Fly Away:”
“I’ll Fly Away” has even garnered the attention of Pulitzer prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, who, in her work By and By, joined it with “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” in a haunting arrangement for voice and string quartet.
In short, Shaw’s By and By stands at the crossroads of Americana and the avant-garde.
I’ll fly away.
It’s a simple statement of unadorned hope, reflecting a certain and unobstructed view of a beautiful land far beyond this vale of tears. Shaw’s sparse setting boils the gloss and luster of the classical string quartet down to the picking and strumming of American bluegrass and old-timey music. The arrangement is as assured as the text is certain.
Carline Shaw’s By and By, performed by Shaw and the Calder Quartet:
I’ll fly away.
And then a flurry of floating arpeggios in the strings, like those in the solo violin part of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.
Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers performs Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Andrew Litton conducting:
Today, Brumley is regarded as one of the most prolific gospel songwriters in history, and “I’ll Fly Away” is known as one of the most recorded songs in the gospel repertoire. Caroline Shaw is recognized as one of today’s most original composers, an artist steeped in musical tradition and at ease with forging new paths.
Whether your Thanksgiving journey takes you down the road or just downstairs, I hope it will set you free from the troubles of this life and surround you with life’s joys and pleasures.
I also hope you’ll join me for Caroline Shaw’s By and By and other music for the journey home and back again on Thanksgiving with The American Sound – By and By: Journeying and Gathering. That’s Thanksgiving Day at 2 p.m. on Classical 101.