Monday, January 15, 2018
He felt a little like he was staring through prison bars, as he slowly made his way through the cotton field. That’s what Albert Edward Brumley thought about in his early 20s as he mulled over his future. How could he make music his life’s work, in contrast to field labor? He probably never imagined that the first time “I’ll Fly Away” crept into his consciousness in the mid-1920s, it would be after he’d already given up (temporarily) on music school. He was picking cotton one day in Oklahoma (perhaps not too unlike the one shown here in 1897), but music still occupied his thoughts. In fact, it was another song that day in the field that gave him the spark for his own composition, though the fruition of “I’ll Fly Away” would take several years after its initial conception.
Albert had tried music school as a 19-year old, but having suspended that venture, he was engaged in something in the following year that he must have thought was pretty far-removed from making music, but which one might say altered the course of his life. He was harvesting cotton for his father and helping the family make a living, but the song that was stuck in his head indicates how he really felt about life – his future – at that moment. He admits he was humming something called “The Prisoner’s Song”, a popular song of the era, sung to give voice to the thoughts of fictional inmates who obviously wanted to be elsewhere. Birds were some of his companions in the cotton field, and Albert imagined being one of them, flying away from the tedium like a fleeing prisoner. The young Brumley evidently soon thereafter returned to music school, but the song he thought about under the sun in the cotton field continued to inhabit his thoughts for the next several years. By the early 1930s, “I’ll Fly Away” was finally in print as a result of Albert’s perseverance. One could speculate that Albert did in fact make his prison-break successfully over the following decades. “I’ll Fly Away” was just one of the several hundred songs (reportedly between 600 and 800 over his lifetime) that he wrote. Albert also worked for or owned music publishing companies, while also teaching others in singing schools in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, and in his native Oklahoma. This ‘fleeing prisoner’ (see verse 2 of ‘I’ll Fly Away’) was eventually honored as an inductee into three halls of fame in the last decade of his life. Albert’s songs included those written on either side of his cotton field experience, but probably none have been more well-known than “I’ll Fly Away”.
Despite how one’s life goes, there are eventually days that make one feel as Albert did in the cotton field. The feeling can be induced from either end of the spectrum – poverty or wealth, fame or insignificance. Am I ‘trapped’ in financial straits, or a dull existence? Or, am I hostage to my profit margin, and to the people my affluence supports? Or, as I age, do my own body’s imperfections hem me into an inevitable conclusion? Entrapment is really a state of mind, someone says. If you said that to Albert, he might have said ‘Right!’, for to him, imprisonment was temporary. Albert just seemed to know his prison warden offers a pardon. Does yours?
One source for information on the song discussed above is The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
See a brief biography of composer here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/r/u/brumley_ae.htm
See biography on composer in Our Garden of Song, edited by Gene C. Finley, Howard Publishing Company, West Monroe, Louisiana, 1980.
History of the song is also here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27ll_Fly_Away
The other song that helped spur the composer’s own song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prisoner%27s_Song
Saturday, January 6, 2018
She may have been a senior citizen, but she didn’t act like your typical retiree. Was she depressed about an apparent rift in her marriage, an episode perhaps somehow related to her decision to move alone to a slum? There was something that compelled 60-year old Frances Jane Crosby to pray, and to share ‘Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer’s words in song via one of her hymn-writing collaborators (William Doane). She may also have observed others at one of the missions she frequented – perhaps the Water Street Mission in Manhattan (see it here), where’d she’d begun visiting that year – who needed God the way she did. It was probably something quite natural for this woman, known as Aunt Fanny, to relate to others who felt that life was full of misfortune, but also opportunity. She herself might have thought so, if her words can be taken as authentic.
Aunt Fanny had already had a prodigious song-writing career, among other pursuits, in the three-score years before she moved to 9 Frankfort Street in Manhattan in 1880. She’d been a noted secular poetess, songwriter, and social activist, including speaking out for the blind, with whom she had herself identified since the onset of this condition in her childhood. She had also been married (to Alexander Van Alstyne, Jr.) for some 20 years, before their marriage apparently ruptured, roughly coinciding with her move to the Frankfort Street address on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She began ministering that year of 1880 in the Water Street Mission, an endeavor to care for alcoholic and unemployed men (also named the Helping Hand for Men in Manhattan). This was evidently not her first foray in missionary work – she’d been active also in the previous 15 years – but 1880 represented a renewed dedication she had expressed was to be the remainder of her life’s work. So, it’s not surprising that she would have prayed as part of this commitment. The verses she crafted suggest she experienced prayer this way, and probably counseled the destitute at Water Street similarly: she approached God, humbly (v.1); and He reciprocated by drawing near to her (v.2). With such a rapport, trusting and confiding develops, and as Fanny repeatedly notes, a sweet relief from weariness enters the picture. That would be good news in a slum!
Someone might say that Fanny had sacrificed much to live and serve among the poor. And, as her own words suggest, she, and the others she encouraged to pray, had ‘…care(s) (vv.2,3,4) and sorrow (v.3). But, as Fanny would also have said, prayer lets the believer receive Divine ‘balm’ (vv. 1-4), a sweet savor not to be missed. If a blind 60-year old could observe that prayer helped ease her fatigue, how do you think that might have sounded to someone out of work, or impoverished because of an addiction? ‘She’s always gonna be blind, but see how she’s coping with this!’ ‘Prayer works’, someone says. Fanny might say ‘He (the ‘Savior’ [vv.1-3] ) on the receiving end of my prayer-line works’.
See the site here for the song’s four verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/t/i/s/tisthebl.htm
Biography of composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Crosby