Hallelujah by and by

Shortly after I picked up the first book in the Left Behind series, but before I’d started writing about it, I wrote a post about the otherworldly strain of escapism in American Christianity. That otherworldliness, I argued, derives from the untenable history of trying to belong to a church that included both slaves and slaveowners.

I titled that post “In the sweet by and by,” enlisting the name of an old Southern Gospel hymn that embodied that otherworldly outlook. I remember thinking that “I’ll Fly Away” might have been a better title for that post, but I didn’t want to use that because I really likeI’ll Fly Away.” I like hearing it and I like singing it. Albert E. Brumley’s old song works as a Gospel song, as a country song, a Dixieland song, a bluegrass song … I just think it’s a great old American tune.

But the theology of it has always bugged me. Richard Beck describes precisely what bothers me about its dismissal of this world and exclusive focus on the next:

Where is the whole “may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? Where is the vision of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth in Revelation 21-22? It does seem like “I’ll Fly Away” is pointing us away from this world in anticipation of the next. The song suggests that the whole goal and aim of the Christian life is to “fly away” from this world to the next.

Exactly. Love should never point us away from this world.

But Beck learned to appreciate this old song in a new way when he realized it was a favorite in the Bible study he helps lead at a nearby prison.

The song sounds completely different in prison. Just like the Bible.

Because here’s the deal, does “I’ll Fly Away” make any sense when it’s sung by rich people of power and privilege? I mean, what the heck are you flying away from? Life in suburbia? The Caramel Macchiatos at Starbucks? The vacations at the beach? The fact that you have clean water, indoor plumbing, central heating/air, and two cars?

But when “I’ll Fly Away” is sung by people who are, quite literally, imprisoned or oppressed, then the song is less about flying off to the Pearly Gates than a commentary about the world around us. “I’ll Fly Away” can be an indictment and lament about the status quo. There is a prophetic aspect to “I’ll Fly Away” that privileged people generally miss. Having never suffered slavery, oppression or imprisonment we can’t hear the lament in “I’ll Fly Away.” So of course when the privileged sing the song it sounds theologically shallow. The privileged shouldn’t be trying to fly away. They should be worrying about the injustices at the gate.

Southern Gospel, like many spirituals, conveys an otherworldly, escapist theology — but it’s also “escapist” in a far more literal sense. The two kinds of escapism arise from the same context, but from opposite sides of it, and they point in opposite directions.

Anyway, just because we can, here are 18 renditions of “I’ll Fly Away.”

The Rev. Gary Davis:

Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch; Etta James; The Avett Brothers; Bruce Springsteen; Johnny Cash, June Carter, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers & Carl Perkins; Kanye West; Hank Williams; Mississippi John Hurt; Blind Boys of Alabama with the Hot 8 Brass Band; Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley; Willie Nelson & Friends; Emmylou Harris & The Oak Ridge Boys; Randy Travis; Dolly Parton & Nell Carter; Loretta Lynn; Jars of Clay; Al Green.

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  • Anonymous

    I’m an athiest and “I’ll Fly Away” is one of my favorite tunes. I think it’s a genuinely hopeful song, and a comforting one. I read it not so much as escaping as “Someday there will be rest, peace, and justice. But today I will walk on the ground and do the best I can and look out of for whomever I can too.”

  • tony in san diego

    This was a very important song in an episode in O Brother Where Art Thou?

  • walden

    How about “shall we gather at the river?”  Another great song, looking beyond this world, but filled with hope.

  • Anonymous

    This is the first version of this I ever heard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYYxKK4Ktp0. It’s abbreviated and obscure, but I’ve liked the song ever since.

  • Daughter

    A friend of mine who leads a nonprofit had a conversation recently with a hospital administrator. The hospital admin that one of the most difficult parts of hir role is helping patients and staff deal with death. The admin put it in a way that I’d never quite heard it, but it made so much sense. “We don’t deal with death well, because we don’t deal with goodbyes well,” zhe said. “As Americans, we’re a whole nation of people who were ripped from our homes by enslavement, or ran away from our homes because of war or persecution or famine, and we were never really able to say goodbye. And it’s become a part of our psyche.”

  • I’ll admit that I’ve always disliked “I’ll Fly Away” and songs like it, but I’ve been surrounded by white, middle-class Baptists my whole life. It had never occurred to me to think of the song from the perspective of the unprivileged (which is, of course, a function of my own privilege, since while I’m not Baptist anymore, I’m still white and middle-class).

    It’s genuinely, legitimately irritating to hear privileged conservative Christians talk about how they’re totally not part of this world, even as they benefit massively from the material excesses that their position in this world provides. But Christianity wasn’t originally for them, anyway, a fact they frequently ignore. Jesus didn’t seek out the privileged; he sought out the poor and oppressed. The privileged people Jesus interacted with in the gospels always sought him out, and whether or not they learned anything from him depended on whether or not they were willing to let go of at least some of their privilege. Those who wanted to “fly away” to the Kingdom without sacrificing a dime of their worldly wealth gained nothing.

  • I love I’ll Fly Away and similar songs — give me some Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch and I’m a happy girl. 

    I think there’s something in there that appeals. Even for those who are still mostly privileged; there’s a lot of emotional pain that gets swept under the rug in our culture. Sometimes I think songs like that help us get in touch with it rather than trying to buy it off with money and status.

  • Richard Hershberger

    Interesting collection of renditions.  I particularly commend the Blind Boys of Alabama/Hot 8 Brass Band version.  The Blind Boys of Alabama are consistently wonderful, and who is so dead inside as to not love a jazz band that includes a sousaphone?   At the other end of the spectrum, I am trying to put my finger on why I so dislike the Jars of Clay version.  I think it seems self-congratulatory, particularly as they used it as their final (perhaps encore) piece, followed by cheering and bowing.  This song can be hopeful, it can be sorrowful, it can be joyous.  It can’t be self-congratulatory.  

  • Oooh, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. What a combo.

  • rm

     Yes, indeed. Most of the others — especially Johnny Cash and the Blind Boys and Mississippi John Hurt and Hank — sing it in a way that says “I can endure these trials now because I have faith in some ultimate peace,” but Jars of Clay sing it in a way that says “I have satisfied the requirement to verbally express faith in Christ, which ensures that I will fly up to heaven and not to hell, good for me.” Also, their accompaniment is cheesy.

  • Anonymous

    Theology aside, this gets to why I hate most country music but love bluegrass and blues.
    Most country, to me, sounds like heavily manufactured songs about how much they love big trucks and America and drinking Bud Light.

    Bluegrass and blues both come from people who have to deal with terrible pain for most of their lives, and they sound like they’re planning on dying early deaths in the coal mines or the cotton fields.

  • OnlyMe

    All of the songs from “O Brother Where Art Thou” have that same undercurrent.

    On the surface, some of them seem kind of nice and sweet, but underneath, there’s no reason to sing that song unless your life is absolutely awful.  From “You Are My Sunshine” which is sung by someone who is being or has just been left, to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” where they list all of the horrible things that don’t happen there, to “I’ll Fly Away” which is sung by someone who can’t.

  • Bluegrass
    and blues both come from people who have to deal with terrible pain for
    most of their lives, and they sound like they’re planning on dying early
    deaths in the coal mines or the cotton fields.

    Seriously. Few things piss me off more than hearing a couple of rich white guys crooning about how everyone in America (and only people in America, apparently) can totally live out their dreams.

  • Quercus

    May I add the version by the Kossoy sisters?

    (This is the version in the actual movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou”, for some reason the soundtrack album has a Krauss/Welch recording).

  • vsm

    Most country, to me, sounds like heavily manufactured songs about how
    much they love big trucks and America and drinking Bud Light.

    I can’t say I ever got those associations from listening to Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan (see John Wesley Harding), Kris Kristofferson or Dolly Parton. It sounds to me like you’ve been listening to some awful brand of country music.

  • Anonymous

    Yep, I lasted about thirty seconds with the Jars of Clay version before hitting stop. Something delicate and sweetly melancholy got turned into a tribal club “Nyah Nyah I’m flying away you dirty sinner loser!” Bleh.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll go along with that – when I listen to older country music, I hear the same sort of honest sentiment I find in bluegrass, so I like it more. 
    But I don’t know that the country I’ve heard is some obscure brand – I feel like if I flipped over to CMT right now I’d see Toby Keith herk-a-durr-ing his way across the screen, wrapped in an American flag.

  • We Must Dissent

    Wow. It had never occurred to me that “I’ll Fly Away” could be a performed as a celebration or self-congratulatory. Since my introduction to it was O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, I’d always taken it as a akin to “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)”.


  • Matthew E.

    I don’t know when, where, or how he heard it, but sometimes I hear my father sing an old slave spiritual with the refrain “there ain’t no dying over there”. I think that’s the same principle at work.