James and I practice Hymn Study as suggested by Ambleside Online which is modeled on the ideas of Charlotte Mason. We learn the song and sing it once a week for a month (more if we like). As I said in the “School day” post, depending on what strikes us that morning, this can become a theological or literature/poetry or music theory lesson. We sometimes find out about the lyricist and learn something about his life that might have led him to write the words that he did. Most times I go along with the suggestion that Ambleside has made for the month; but sometimes I nix it and choose another.
When it comes to hymns, I’m more of a Bachian kind of gal. I prefer lyrics that come straight from Scripture and songs that praise attributes of God and tell of his wonderful deeds. I don’t like songs that rely too much on telling the author’s personal experience. Often I find the theology off. I don’t like the pitiful, sentimental tone. And I feel that since I might not share the author’s experience and sentiments, I am being dishonest when I sing this song. (And usually the melody and harmonies chosen to go with the words are pretty weak too.)
February’s Hymn is “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert Brumley. My first impulse was to nix this one, but I decided to spend some time with it yesterday and what follows is a sampling of the thoughts and feelings that came from that hour or two. First of all, you can find many, many versions of the song at YouTube and some groups, such as Nickel Creek, sure do have fun singing this song. It turns out to be a good foot stompin’, crowd pleaser. I watched/listened to Jars of Clay, Charley Pride, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch, a segment from The Waltons, and some Louisiana cajun folks singing the song. The Krauss/Welch version led me to another version from O Brother, Where Are Thou?, which in turn took me on a short journey through several other songs from that soundtrack, which leads me into the thoughts I’m about to share (and leads into some other thoughts that I think will become another blog post.)
From the few bios and comments I found in my internet search on Mr. Brumley, I learned that he was working in a cotton field when the concept for this song was born. It was 1929 and he recalled that he was picking cotton and singing “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” So you get some idea of the hardship that might have inspired these lyrics and the desire to fly away and leave it all.
The lyrics include phrases ‘like a bird from prison bars has flown‘ and ‘just a few more weary days.’ These expressions are similar to ‘living below in this old sinful world, hardly a comfort can afford’ from “Where Could I Go But to the Lord?” and ‘the burden on my weary back had bowed me to despair’ from a song called “Follow Me.” I’m sure you could think of many others that express these ideas. Songs associated with the days of slavery in this country; songs associated with economic hardships of folks during our big Depression; songs associated with the on-going hardships of life for Appalachian mountain people. I participated in singing the 3 songs I’ve mentioned here as well as many others of this variety often in congregational settings in my first 40 years. I remember in my single days of my 20s laying on my king-sized bed in my townhouse apartment with my TV in the bedroom, using the remote control even though the large bed put me very close to the TV, making jokes with my roommate about “hardly a comfort can afford.” We knew that it was hypocritical for us to sing such things. I could only be honest in singing those lyrics if I was telling the story of another person.
Do I long to “fly away” and be with God? Yes. But it is not the hardships of this life that are driving me to that feeling. I’m not quite ready to fly away because I’m not done with Jack and James yet. I won’t argue if the time comes before I think I’m done with them; I’m just saying that life here isn’t so miserable for me (as some songs express), that I just want to escape now from here. Yes, I have from time to time felt burdened by money woes and the words “Soon-a will done with the troubles of this world” come to mind. (Love that song! Love to hear a really, really good choir sing it.) Quite frankly, the thing that wearies me the most in this old world and makes me want to be done with it and move on up to the next is Christians. I feel weary and get discouraged by the tolerating of evil and even defending and protecting of the evil-doers in their churches and communities. Their love of their traditions and institutions over love for truth and righteousness wears on my mind and heart.
I do want to fly away to “that home on God’s celestial shore” because I’m very excited about seeing God and Jesus. Maybe I’ll get some questions answered. Maybe I won’t care then. I want to see my brother James again. Some of my “hardships” of the past nearly 13 years have just been the pain of missing him. And I sure do want to see my daughter Grace.
James and I will be learning and singing “I’ll Fly Away” on Tuesdays this month of February. It’ll be a cultural study too, won’t it? We’ll talk about what would inspire a man to write words such as this. And we’ll talk about how we can relate or not. We’ll talk about what Mr. Brumley meant by “prison bars” and “weary days” and maybe we’ll relate it to the freedom we’ve been given already because of the battles fought and won by God and Jesus and their host. And we’ll talk about how great the next life will be and why we look forward to that. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
So what was my point in all this? I guess it’s about honesty. It’s about mindless singing. Life here is not a drudgery that makes me want to be freed from its prison bars. Yes, yes, yes, I know that compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing and seeing God, all that I have in this life is refuse; but I don’t think that’s what the lyricists of these songs had in mind. They were talking about real hardship right here, right now. This is their story. It is also the story of many people in many places on this planet right now. But I cannot honestly sing “hardly a comfort can afford” as my story. And people who do sing this (unless they can tell me they are expressing someone else’s story) and live in their fine big houses, with multiple cars and garage to put those in and TVs in every room are mindlessly singing and are lying. It’s a scary thing to me to see the sentimentalization and romanticizing of hardship so much that people actually crave it. Or the people who thrive on drama and the “woe is me” and create hardship just for the sake of it. I choose to be content no matter my circumstances here on this planet and to know that no matter how good things are here for me, they cannot compare to what awaits on “the other side.” For some reason I have been given much here. I will never pretend that that is not true. Isn’t there some song or other that says “all this and heaven too!”?
And with that, I leave you with one of my favorite renditions of the song from my YouTube journey yesterday.