Why I Won’t Sing I’ll Fly Away – at least, not in Worship
March 8, 2016
A friend mentioned to me today that a secular band he liked did a recording of “I’ll Fly Away” and thought it was a “gutsy choice for a non-religious band”.
I'll make the counter point argument that it's not a very gutsy choice at all, since "I'll Fly Away" is not a Christian song, nor a particularly religious song – at least, not one that pertains to any specific religion.
It's a traditional folk song born of spirituals sung by American slaves as they were worked to death. Granted, it was penned by Alfred Brumley in 1929, which may seem a far cry from American slavery which was abolished in 1865, but it comes from a tradition of songs that are re-written folk ballads, negro spirituals, and traditional ditties that grew from the slave culture. Even Brumley calls it a “gospel type song”, but it is not in fact a gospel song. It does not even mention Christ, does not glorify God, it only mentions God in passing, and the mention it gives could be sung in the context of any pagan religion ("God's celestial shore" could be sung by a Muslim, Hindu, Shaman, Buddhist, etc), and it only sings about one's self for the whole of the song, without any depth of spiritual truth to it.
It's a song expressing hope of release from captivity in this world, which all religions seek to address... but it is not a song that ever should have been sung by the Christian Church.
It's a worship song - that worships self. Not Jesus.
So I can see why secular bands would like it. And I can see why lots of people do. Folks generally like to bring attention to themselves, praise themselves, and talk well of what they’d like to do. That’s just what this song does.
Now I realize there are many who grew up singing this song and love it dearly, and hold many happy memories in association with this song, having sung it in church for years and years. And I realize toward that point, there are even pastors whom have done an eisegetical proof-texing defense of the song, trying to match up Scripture with its verses (1 Thess 4:17, 2 Tim 4:6-8, etc) but that’s intellectual dishonesty at best. It wasn’t written with Scriptural truth in mind. It was written by a guy whose dad was making him pick cotton on the family farm, who in passive aggressive response had in mind rewriting a prison song which itself had contested authorship, as it was probably stolen from slaves to whom the original writing remains unattributed. Great tradition to begin a song from, right?
The people who wrote it were chained together in the daily torture of being worked unto death, imprisoned disdainfully by fellow men (many of whom hypocritically claimed a relationship with the Living Christ), had very little knowledge of Scripture and certainly this song was not born of a desire to worship God but simply a desire to escape from slavery, pain, and the repulsive conditions in which they were kept more like animals than people. And that is the song which by Brumley’s own words, he wanted to paraphrase and rewrite so he could cash in on the record industry phenomenon that was sweeping through America.
From reflection on that imagery alone, I’m reluctant to sing the song, except in sadness that it was written in the first place. Even sadder still that the authors of “The Prisoner’s Song” remain lost to history, most likely because they were black men whose names did not matter to the white men who stole recognition for writing it, just because they were first to record it, and frankly because they had more rights than black men at the time.
I’m not saying we sweep this song under the rug in order to ignore this song’s origins, any more than we ought to ignore the likely origins of the tune of “Amazing Grace”, which was written by a captain of a slaving ship. This period of human history happened. It’s atrocious. That Christians allowed it to happen on their watch is horrible, and this should be remembered... shamefully. Indeed, we need to remember such songs for their horrendous origins, so that we never allow such circumstances to be repeated. We can’t be singing praise for God on Sunday and let blatant injustice be carried out before us the rest of the week without doing something about it, or it invalidates – makes false – our worship.
When we don’t match up what we sing in worship with what we do in life, God abhors the very sound of our singing. In Amos chapter 5, God gives a pretty harsh indictment against people who have loud festivals and raucous singing in His name, but allow social perversions to continue. God desires justice and righteousness and mercy. Remember the precepts of Micah 6:8, which many of us sang as a worship song back in the 80’s and 90’s. Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.
And for me, beyond any other history, the humility is what is lacking in “I’ll Fly Away”, aside from any lack of depth of spiritual truth. It’s all about me. And trust me – my heart is wickedly deceitful, just as anyone else’s, and I can puff myself up without any help from another song that is all about me and who I’d like to be based on my desires, my preferences, my inclinations, my dreams - without reflecting on my true identity in Christ. Who I am is because of Who He Is. And what HE has done.
My identity is special and secure. And certainly worth singing about, but only within the right context – giving glory to God, not keeping it for myself.
I’m not out to be Debbie Downer on a song that is much ballyhooed and beloved. For me it is a matter of conscience, a matter of intellectual integrity, and a matter of awareness. Yes, I agree that not every song is or needs to be a systematic theology – but we do tend to believe what we sing, and in terms of songs that speak of the hope of glory, there are so many other songs that speak better that this one, on either side of the spectrum – whether you prefer traditional songs or newer ones.
On the traditional side, there is “Victory in Jesus,” another generational favorite and a true Gospel song:
“I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary to save a wretch like me;
I heard about His groaning, of His precious blood's atoning,
Then I repented of my sins and won the victory.
O victory in Jesus, my Savior, forever.
He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood;
He loved me ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him,
He plunged me to victory, beneath the cleansing flood.
I heard about His healing, of His cleansing power revealing.
How He made the lame to walk again and caused the blind to see;
And then I cried, "Dear Jesus, come and heal my broken spirit,"
And somehow Jesus came and brought to me the victory.
I heard about a mansion He has built for me in glory.
And I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea;
About the angels singing, and the old redemption story,
And some sweet day I'll sing up there the song of victory.”
On the modern side, there is “Endless Hallelujah” by Matt Redman:
“When I stand before Your throne, dressed in glory not my own
What a joy I'll sing of on that day
No more tears or broken dreams, forgotten is the minor key
Everything as it was meant to be
And we will worship, worship
Forever in Your presence we will sing
We will worship, worship You
An endless hallelujah to the King
I will see You as You are, love You with unsinning heart
And see how much You paid to bring me home
Not till then, Lord, shall I know, not till then, how much I owe
Everything I am before Your throne
No more tears, no more shame
No more sin and sorrow ever known again
No more fears, no more pain
We will see You face to face, see You face to face”
In light of such better choices of songs to sing with my church, “I’ll Fly Away” simply has no standing or merit. Perhaps I might sing it around a campfire, perhaps in a bluegrass jam, but certainly not in the gathering of saints as a song of worship, and certainly not by my choice. There are many better songs to choose from. My admonition to others who have the privilege and responsibility of choosing which songs we’ll sing as those Redeemed by Christ, worshiping Jesus as His Bride: Choose wisely.