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The Man Who Wrote 'I'll Fly Away'

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 13, 2022 3:10 am

The Man Who Wrote 'I'll Fly Away'

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 13, 2022 3:10 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Albert E. Brumley is recognized as one of the most important Gospel music composers of all time. Writing over 800 songs, including "I'll Fly Away" and "Turn Your Radio On", and with countless awards to his name, he truly is an American music icon. But how did this son of Oklahoma sharecroppers end up where he did? Here to tell the story is Betsy and Elaine, his granddaughters.

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And we return to our American Stories. Up next, a story about a man who had an extraordinary impact on American music, writing bluegrass and gospel standards such as, I'll Fly Away and Turn Your Radio On. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story.

Albert E. Brumley was born on October 29, 1905. Here's his granddaughters, Betsy and Elaine, to tell the rest of the story. Grandpa grew up in a little town in Oklahoma. He was born near Sparrow, Oklahoma, close to Rock Island, Oklahoma. He grew up really poor.

His family were sharecroppers and they sharecropped cotton. You know, if you've ever picked cotton, if you've ever done that, it's terrible. It's awful. It hurts. I mean, because I remember doing it as a school experiment when I was a kid.

I don't know why they had us do that. You know, the pricks from the thorns or whatever those little sticky things are. But that was his childhood, but it was musical because his dad played instruments and taught him how to love music. And he played the piano. And we really hated picking cotton. He didn't like the life, which is one of the reasons he decided to move toward the music in Hartford, Arkansas. I've heard two different stories. The one that I grew up hearing was he walked over from Sparrow and his home farm to Hartford with, you know, it varies, but around $2.50 or so. Not much money in his pocket at all.

Hartford is actually 28 miles from from Sparrow. So the fact that he walked 28 miles to go to school, to me, it shows some mighty determination, which I think when he knocked on Ian Bartlett's door and told him he wanted to learn music is what really sold Ian Bartlett on the fact that this guy had something, which is why Ian Bartlett allowed him to sleep on his couch instead of pay tuition. So he kind of sponsored him in a way. And of course, the repayment was that he would have to come work for him after he taught him how to write music to pay off the tuition debt. But who was Ian? So Ian Bartlett was a songwriter. He learned how to write songs from the Stamps Baxter Company and decided to go out on his own.

And he began the Hartford Institute in Hartford, Arkansas. And Ian did a lot of things at that music school. He was a publisher as well as teaching music. Music he would teach at temporary singing schools set up in small communities across the country for the purpose of educating poor rural Americans on the basics of music and tuition was paid for by buying Ian's songbooks. That's how my grandpa made money on all everyone that worked for the Hartford Music Institute made money was by going to sell these songbooks and people would attend school. And as you got more popular and your songs became more popular, you were assigned a page in those songbooks. And as we know, grandpa was pretty prolific when he was writing his music and Ian taught him the basics of how to do it. But the talent, of course, came from grandpa. He wrote a lot of songs in those convention books. He was one of the, I guess I'm going to use the words most famous contributors to these convention song books.

I mean, if you want a list of songs, I mean, there's All Fly Away, I'll Meet You in the Morning, If We Never Meet Again, Turn Your Radio On, Ring Strangers to Me. Did I say Jesus All My Hand? I can't remember. But grandpa wrote All Fly Away over a period of time. It wasn't something he just sat down and did. And one of the things that's pretty unique about grandpa, I'll just throw this in here, was he wrote the notes of the music along with the words.

Not many people these days, there are so many co-writers. And he wrote the right to left. Right to left, exactly. Which is totally crazy to think about. Yeah, but that's how he saw it. That's how it worked for him. And he was very particular about the message in the song and he wanted specific words. And for All Fly Away, I mean, I don't know if he knew this or not because we never discussed it, but it meant a lot to him with that song. I think it took him a while, four years to compose it and get the words right. And he would get stuck on one phrase or one word. And if it didn't suit what his vision or meaning for the song was, because what he wanted to do is paint a story for people so they could see it in their mind and connect to it and feel it.

And then I guess in some way apply it to their life to help offer them hope and maybe purpose uplift them a little bit in their day to day lives. Because, you know, people didn't have the things, the luxuries of life. They looked to each other and community and music as a connector. And so that was the beginning of All Fly Away and the years he started that after he was with Ian Bartlett.

Yeah, I was like 28 or 29. Well, you know, the thing is, Grandpa always called that a little ditty. He never really, it was never anything spectacular to him. And Grandma is actually the one who made him send it in because part of his deal with Ian Bartlett was that he had to send a song in a month because he had a Works for Hire contract, which means part of his contract was one song per month so it could be submitted to a song book.

And so he was looking for a song to submit one month and Grandma was like why don't you submit this one because he never really thought, he just called it, he always referred to it as a little ditty. It was never anything huge to him. But he still was so particular about it. Oh, he was particular about everything he did.

That's true, but he was very particular about that. But Grandpa, I do remember they always said Grandma, I don't know if the word forced is correct, but she sure urged him to get that song out there for people to hear because she liked it. And as we know, everybody likes it.

A couple of other people seem to like it. I think because it's easy and simple and happy and it's hopeful and it's easy to remember. You know, Grandpa always wrote and he would say that if you can't come out singing the song, then it's not good enough because you have to be something that's memorable, something that people will remember. And another thing Grandpa used to say was that never you get too far from the people and then you'll never be too far from the mainstream because everything is about people. It doesn't matter what you do, whether you write a song, whether you sew clothes, it doesn't matter what you do, if people will not accept it and make that part of their lives, then it doesn't matter how good it is.

So he always kept that in mind. It's like, will people sing it? Does it connect to people? Is this going to be something that they will remember? And I think All Fly Away is a very good example of that. I mean, in 1976 we won an award for All Fly Away being the most recorded gospel song in history at the time. It was 726 times. When we say recorded, we mean licenses. And that was 1976.

So here we are 30, 45 years later and we're over 12,000 licenses. And when he first wrote it, it took a few years for it to become even popular and it was even recorded, but not until the Chuck Wagon Gang recorded their recording and it just somehow connected with people. Plus things in the industry were changing from convention singing and the things he did to more professional group performances. But they made a recording of that and it just really took off. And that's when the awareness of the song went beyond convention singing and church singing. It was because the Chuck Wagon Gang is not necessarily only Christian music.

They sing all kinds of music. And they've been around for almost as long as we have, entering the second and third generation of their singing. And so there's a connection there that's lasted as well. And that started the road. And Grandpa was such a smart man. He recognized the shift in the industry and began to do more of the publishing. And that's when he was moving toward his own publishing company and bought Hartford and did all these other things. And so All Fly Away was obviously a part of that. It's become part of the fabric of America and the world even. I mean the Smithsonian has named Grandpa the greatest American. They did use this. They said the greatest white songwriter before World War II.

Which I don't know why they made an extinction, but they did. And Of course All Fly Away is now in the Library of Congress as well, along with Rank Strangers. So, you know, I don't know if there's not many songwriters who have two songs in the Library of Congress. And you've been listening to this story of Albert E. Brumley as told by his granddaughters Elaine and Betsy.

And his ditties indeed are masterpieces. And staying close to the people and making sure that it's a memorable melody. Well, we learned that about Irving Berlin too. Stay close to the people.

Make sure they can hum it and then sing it after hearing it once. By the way, our Irving Berlin piece is beautiful and you can go to and listen to it in so many ways. Though these men came from different places. One from New York City.

One from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Their stories are the same American story. When we come back, more of Albert E. Brumley's story. A uniquely American story. And a great music and art story. And so much more here on Our American Story.

And we return to Our American Stories. And our story on Albert E. Brumley. The man who wrote many classic American bluegrass and gospel standards such as I'll Fly Away and Turn Your Radio On. When we last left off, Albert had got his start in music at the Hartford Music Company after walking there with just two dollars in his pocket. And Albert would soon form his own company.

Here again are his granddaughters Elaine and Betsy with his story. So grandpa started what he called Albert E. Brumley & Sons, his own publishing company in 1944. And he started writing for himself and he was also writing for Stan Spaxter and for Hartford still at the time. But he went back and purchased all of Hartford so he could get all of his songs back and that ended up in 1948 when we got all that started.

Yeah, when we got 100% because different people had owned portions of it so he bought each percentage from each person to own 100% of Hartford. And because of his relationships with people, we printed books for literally everybody. I mean we printed songbooks for the Opry, we printed songbooks for the Louisiana Hayride, we printed songbooks for the Renfro Valley, Ozark Jubilee, Bob Wills, the groups, all the groups, Charlie Humbard. We printed songbooks for everybody. So over these years that we've had this, we've sold just our own books that we've made, plus our own books we made for ourselves and sold which we used to sell in the National Enquirer of all things.

We did, we sold millions of them and we've sold them all over the world. We've sold over 40 million songbooks and we've made over 100 million songbooks. Because Grandpa was genius, the man, he was smart. So I like to say he invented iTunes, that's just my own thing. But that's because Grandpa got, he made a contract with all those publishers around and everybody got a list of all the songs that they owned. And he would send them to people like the Opry, the Louisiana Hayride, all those folks.

Pick your favorite 150 songs, send me a list, we'll put them in a songbook, put your name on it and you can sell it. Which is why we sold so many songs, we made so many songbooks. Because everybody would pick different songs that would personalize, they would have their playlist of songs, we'd make it in a book and then they would sell it with their name on the front, on the cover.

It was a brilliant shift over in the industry to be able to do that. And on the more personal side of this that I love, I love the songs and stuff, but you know Grandpa was so artistic in so many ways. He helped create the illustrations on the covers of the books. So the evidence of his folksy image the way he was in real life was presented on the covers of these books with log cabins and pine trees which I love and little church buildings. So he was such a hands-on person, he had from the beginning to end, he had an idea. And then in the later days in the 60s and 70s, Dad and Bill, his older brother Bill were the only ones really left at the company and they contributed and participated in the creation and putting together these books. Which is where we learned how to staple and stitch books. Because we did do that on site for a long time.

And I've packed so many books, but you know that was just part of the business. That's what we did in the middle of nowhere. It was enough to where we even have a post office. There's like 10 people in Palm, Missouri which is where Grandpa and Grandma's house is and across the road is the business he built and a post office.

But there used to be a thriving community there as well, but the post office still exists because we shipped from that rural area all over the country. One of the things that I was always impressed with was how he lays the books out. He had a specific way of laying them out with the numbers correlating. Like he loved the number 100.

He put his song on there a lot of times. That's because that's what his song book was. When he had the convention style books, that was his number. That was number one.

Number 100, I mean. So he kept that connection and put them in those new books and I think that kind of stuff is pretty cool. You know, the way he continued that tradition really and it meant something to him. So he named his kids after song people and he kept the traditions of what gave him his beginnings and the music. It meant a lot to him, I think, because of his behavior.

So I showed it. And over the years because of his work, Albert developed long-lasting friendships with countless well-known musicians who would sometimes come over for dinner at his house in Powell, Missouri where Elaine and Betsy would meet them. I didn't know this was anything. I didn't know about fame or celebrity.

I didn't know they were famous people from Nashville. I didn't know anything but what dad and grandpa did and what was normal life and the fact that those people came to the house, they were just friends. We just sat around the table and ate. It was not, I mean, it's all about food. I mean, I have a memory, totally about food, but I have a memory of sitting on Ernest Tubbs' lap and wearing his cowboy hat and he ate my green beans because I hate green beans. But I would get in trouble if I couldn't eat green beans but he ate my green beans so I would get in trouble. I mean, I have that memory but to me that was nothing. It was like, oh man, I got somebody to eat my green beans.

That's all I cared about. Everybody came to the house. It never even occurred to me that they were famous, not even one time. And we can't not talk about the Hill and Hollow. We had what was called the Hill and Hollow Folk Festival where we had local arts and crafts and local music and it was focused more on the gospel aspect on Sundays. They'd have gospel performances and there'd be a church service locally. As time moved on, they decided to add in bluegrass and bring in some of those people that were famous that we didn't know were famous to sing on Saturday nights. He'd bring in the Opry stars like Ernest Tubbs and Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, Olive. Everybody came.

I mean, you can't not name an Opry star that wasn't impaled on the stage. And you had dinner with them because that's just what you did. You made some homemade ice cream, had a conversation, picked a little. They went on stage and then you did it again. You know, you jammed afterward or you ate more or whatever.

Yeah, because they would just show up. I mean, I remember the buses coming in and everything because down behind the stage there's this low wire that goes to the barn. You have to get in the pickup truck and hold up the wire so the buses can go under. That was my favorite part, to see the wire. Who's going to get stuck on the wire? The Thrasher Brothers got stuck that one time.

Blackwood Brothers, as far as the gospels are concerned. Everybody was there. Everybody came and sang on that stage. Marty Stewart was with Lester Flatt when he was about 17 years old, played on that stage. Yeah, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Marty.

Oh golly geez, I can't even think of them because they're just like there. Anybody back, George Lindsay came one time. I remember Goober showed up.

That was weird. But also, industry people showed up. So it wasn't just the stars showing. Everybody would say, I'm going to Brumley. Whether it be the singer or the hill and hollow, they would always show up because it was such a good time.

It was just whether they were from New York or 30 miles away, it meant something for people to gather at these events and connect and get away and relax and enjoy. Grandpa was very particular too. He did not like to leave Powell.

Even to get awards and stuff, he'd be like, whatever. But I do remember the story when he went down to see Governor Jimmy Davis. The Governor of Louisiana, who wrote the song, You Are My Sunshine. They were down there in the Governor's mansion and he served fried chicken. Everybody's all nervous. Grandpa was his grandpa. He had a chicken leg, put his elbows up on the table and just started eating.

Everybody's like, oh thank goodness. Everything was fine. All the nerves were gone. His grandpa was just grandpa. He was relaxed.

He wasn't stressed about anything. He didn't want the limelight either. He was either off behind the stage or sitting on some, he liked to sit on stairs, sit on the stairs or squat on set off to the side to watch what was going on around. He would talk to anybody that came up, but he never really went up on stage very often. Even at whatever event we were at, he just preferred that relaxed, everything is okay, I'm eating my chicken leg with my elbows on the table kind of thing.

Very laid back. And people loved that because they didn't have to put on a face. They could be themselves around him, that whole authentic self thing.

You couldn't help it because that's just who he was. And you're listening to The Granddaughters of Albert E. Brumley tell his life story. And in a way, the granddaughters are telling their own because these stories are so intertwined in this remarkable American story and this remarkable American family. When we come back, more from the granddaughters. And by the way, if you've got grandkids, empower them to tell your family's story.

Empower them early because, my goodness, to not know your family's story for better or for worse is a crime. When we come back, more of this remarkable American story. Albert E. Brumley's here on Our American Story. And we return to Our American Stories and the final segment of our story on American composer Albert E. Brumley and also American entrepreneur. It's told by his granddaughters, Betsy and Elaine.

In 1970, Albert would be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame, becoming a charter member of that organization. Which, according to the granddaughters, was something he really enjoyed going to. Let's continue with the story.

OK, so here's what happened. So he goes and Grandpa left Powell for like five reasons, and that was one of them. Grandpa, like Elaine was saying, no limelight, not his thing. He would sit in the back of the room and Grandpa would hold a cup of coffee by the bowl in his palm, and that's how he would drink.

So he would lean up against the back wall. Very unassuming, you don't know who he is. He doesn't make a fuss.

That's just how he spent most of his time, but this young songwriter had just got some award. I have no idea what it was. He came up and said, man, look what I just did, blah, blah, blah.

He was so excited about it. He said, dude, what's your name? He goes, I'm Albert Brumley. He goes, man, have you written anything I know? He said, I'll fly away.

The guy goes, oh, and just walked off. I mean, but Grandpa was fine. He just, you know, he just did his thing. He never made a fuss, and he ate weird stuff. He ate weird stuff and slept weird. And he was an eccentric by today's standards, the way I remember him when I was really small.

It was normal, but now when you talk about it, it's just humorous. It's funny because he did eat funny things and different things than what we normally eat, like buttermilk on Wheaties or tomato juice on Wheaties. Oh, and the treat that was in the, oh, God. Yeah, he had like a slice, a can of, it wasn't called Spam then. Well, it was a treat, wasn't it? It was a treat, yeah, which is another kind of canned meat product. And it's a pork product that came in a tin can that had a key to it. And he'd leave it open in the fridge and then go slice them off when he wanted it.

I hated that smell. At three o'clock in the morning many times. There's tons of stories. And when I was little, before a lot of the other kids came along, I would go down with Grandma Brumley on Friday nights, and Grandpa would be in his room because he had a room right off the kitchen where he lived on this couch. And I mean, he slept there, he ate there, he did everything there. But he would come out and he would stand because we weren't supposed to watch scary shows, but Grandma would let me watch something called Dimension 16. And that was on the UHF channel, which, by the way, we had to run a wire from the house up to the top of the bluff behind the house to get the signal, and that's another story, to watch that. But he would come out and just stand there.

He would never sit with us. He would just stand there and watch it a few minutes, and he'd mosey to the bathroom wherever he was going, and he would come back through and stand there for a few minutes and, you know, watch with us and go back to his couch. And that was just my Friday for a very long time. That's how I spent my Fridays, my nights with Grandma Brumley and the snacks and all the things. Did she make cinnamon toast for you? Oh, and cocoa.

We did that, yeah. And she let me sip her coffee, which was also a no-dope. And never did take up the smoking that Grandpa did, though.

Never cared for that. He would smoke a lot, or at least hold a lot of cigarettes. He would hold them while he was thinking, and they would burn down and the ash would drop off, and there was a lot of cigarette burns on the table beside his couch where he laid them.

And I have, myself, seen Grandma go up to him with an ashtray and tap the cigarette into the ashtray so he wouldn't drop it all over the floor or something. And it was kind of something he would go, oh yeah, and then just keep on, because his mind was focused on whatever. And he had a lot of thoughts, and he would write them down on ice cream sticks and pieces of paper and lines for music, music notes and whatever.

Telephone bill. Oh, whatever he could get his hands on. And he always wanted Cadillac. And when I was little, just to give you a picture, because we like to draw the pictures, we live out in the middle of the country with a two-lane road, and just across the street, literally, was where they started their business and built the buildings.

I don't know, 500 feet maybe. But it was across a two-lane highway, so Grandpa got his car, and he would get up in the morning when he was ready to go to work, and he would jump in the car and drive across the street and park it and walk in the building. And then at lunch he would jump in the car, drive across back to the house and go eat and take his nap, and then he would do the same thing in the afternoon, and that was his regimen. The walking was not his thing. He wanted to drive his car back and forth across the street. But you know, Dad did the same exact thing.

But that's what you do, because you went to and from work. It's fun to think about those days. Albert E. Brumley would pass away in 1977, leaving a legacy of over 800 songs, all penned by his hand. But only one of them can claim the title as the most recorded gospel song in all of history, that song being I'll Fly Away.

And its legacy isn't lost on the family. I used to work for American Airlines because I wanted to travel, and Dad said he wasn't paying for it. And I've literally heard I'll Fly Away all over the world, because Kevin and I heard it in Fiji on our honeymoon. But I was in Australia on a bus, and nobody has a clue who I am.

And I'm on the way to this cave thing. It's like 30 minutes outside town, and myself and my friend are the only Americans on the bus. Everybody else is Australian. And they're singing Waltzing Matilda, and we're like, that's kind of cool, blah, blah, blah. But the next song they sang was I'll Fly Away.

Now again, they had no clue who I was, and I didn't say anything. But it's like, it's so amazing to me the impact of that song. It's been recorded in every country, in every language on the planet.

We have a license for it. Until I keep getting new countries, and then we have to go back. It changed the names. It changed the names. But that song has touched millions upon millions of people. Because the song is over 80 years old, so it's been around long enough for generations of people to connect to it and sing to their grandchildren and their families at funerals, at gatherings, at sings, and whatever. And Betsy's story in Australia, those things are motivational to keep it alive, because it still does mean something. So whenever we can get it out there, like it was recently on a TV show, and they sang it, and I still got tears, and I still got the chills, and it's just still relevant.

And Grandpa, as Betsy was saying, knew that was a factor in continuing things when it means something to the people. One of my favorite things is when people tell me their I'll Fly Away stories, because everyone has one. I have literally hugged people in the grocery store. I've cried with them. I've cried with them in the hospitals. A lady, a friend of mine, used that as her wedding march, which I thought was really interesting because I'd never heard that before. But that song brings back memories for people of things that they may have forgotten about. But it transports them to a place that is so special and such a place in their heart that nothing else can get them there. And the fact that they're willing to tell me that story, because it really happens to me almost daily that someone tells me a story.

Same here. I'm always sharing stories. So one of the ones that I have is that a gentleman told us that he was in a car accident, and he was being life flighted out, and he was dying. And he felt that he actually died, and he was singing I'll Fly Away to bring himself back so he would not die. So he sang himself back to life is what he was saying.

He said, I just kept singing I'll Fly Away so I would not die. To know that my name as a person in this world represents something that can literally change someone's life in a moment is so huge. It's an honor to be able to be connected to something like that. And it's just that people tell us those stories.

I mean, I'm serious. I've cried with so many strangers. I've had more people telling me those stories, especially in hospitals. I don't know how I end up in hospitals, but I tend to, well, I get hurt a lot.

I do. I get in the emergency room a lot. I don't know why I'm danger prone or whatever, accident prone, whatever. But people tell me their stories, and I mean, I've just cried and cried with people. They've seen that to their loved ones, their older loved ones. I mean, we've done that in hospice. We've brought people into hospice. And to like the Chuck Wagon Gang, because we still have the language saying work with them, brought them to hospice and people, and they sing I'll Fly Away, and people have come out of their rooms.

And it's like the nurses will like, it's like they haven't walked in a week. But they come out of their rooms to sing and participate and be near that song. It's amazing to me the power of the melody that Grandpa conjured up out of, out of literally nowhere, out of a cotton field in Oklahoma, you know, to be able to move someone to where, as they are literally slowly passing away, they have the strength to get up and they want to be near that song.

That's amazing to me. And a great job by Monty Montgomery on the production of that piece. A special thanks to Betsy and Elaine, the granddaughters of this great man, Albert E. Brumley. And a special thanks to Katrina Hein as well. And again, remember, he started as the son of sharecroppers in cotton fields in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma and walks his way to a new life and a life of art and music. And in the end, 40 million music books sold and the greatest and most recorded gospel song of all time that as you could hear from the granddaughters touched millions. We love telling these stories because it connects American history with the American present and everything in between. A special thanks to any granddaughter, any grandkid who wants to keep the story of their family alive. The Albert E. Brumley story here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-17 19:35:56 / 2023-02-17 19:48:35 / 13

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