Born OCTOBER 29, 1905
Most hymn writers are remembered for one or two songs. A few have been blessed to write a handful that survive and thrive. One of gospel music’s most popular hymn writers of the 20th century is Albert Brumley. The majority of his songs that are still sung today were written during the decade of the 1930s (seven of the ten I’ll mention). The Smithsonian Institute reportedly named Albert “the greatest white gospel songwriter before WWII.”
Albert was born in Oklahoma before it gained statehood. He grew up the son of tenant farmers. It looked like he’d be destined to labor in cotton fields the rest of his days. That is until the day Albert’s interest in music led him to a local singing school.
It was evident the teenager had talent. Before he turned 20, Albert attended the Hartford Musical Institute in Arkansas where he also studied songwriting. He returned home after only a year, but the seed had been planted.
Albert had met the first of two people who would make the most difference in his life: E. M. Bartlett, founder of the Hartford Musical Institute and its parent company, the Hartford Music Company. The other person would be Goldie Schell, the woman he’d marry in 1931, and with whom he’d raise six children.
“I’LL FLY AWAY” 1932
Albert was inspired to write his best-known hymn in 1929. After a year at the music institute, he returned home to work in the cotton fields. One day while working, he sang a popular song of that day titled “The Prisoner’s Song.” He thought of a prisoner’s lack of freedom and the freedom he wanted from the unpleasant work picking cotton.
He noticed a bird in flight nearby. That accented a line from “The Prisoner’s Song” that said, “If I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.” That stirred his imagination to turn that image into a gospel song, with his flight not being from prison, but from earth to Heaven. He put his initial idea on paper, but it was a few years later before “I’ll Fly Away” was completed and published. The Hartford Music Company included it in a hymnal in 1932. The song gained instant popularity.
Mr. Bartlett invited Albert to become a staff writer at the Hartford Music Company. While writing for the company, Albert would pen other songs that America came to love. I place some of his his most enduring hymns into the three following categories.
1: SONGS ABOUT LIVING FOR GOD
“JESUS, HOLD MY HAND” 1933
The follow-up to “I’ll Fly Away” expresses strong themes of God’s guidance and protection. With child-like faith, the hymn describes Jesus as “a friend who walks with me” and who “leads me safely.” The constant need for spiritual help is mentioned in “This would be my prayer dear Lord each day,” and “I need Thee every Hour.”
“I’D RATHER BE AN OLD-TIME CHRISTIAN” 1934
The phrase “old-time Christian” may conjure up a different mental image for each generation who hears it. It implies someone less modern in beliefs and practices. The chorus states, “There’s nothing like an old-time Christian with Christian love to show.” According to the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37-39), that’s what God wants in every generation.
“I JUST STEAL AWAY AND PRAY” 1946
The three verses of the hymn mention being tempted and failing in our actions, words, and thoughts. The answer in those times: get alone with God and ask for His forgiveness. The chorus promotes the best answer being to “ask the blessed Lord to lead the way.”
Albert’s life for God led him to teach at a number of singing schools. In 1936, he also began writing songs for the Stamps Baxter Music Company. In the final year of the 1930s, he and his family made Powell, Missouri their permanent home while on earth.
2: SONGS ABOUT SALVATION
“HE SET ME FREE” 1939
The beginning lyrics remind us of the inspirations for “I’ll Fly Away.” The very first line says, “Once like a bird in prison I dwelt, No freedom from my sorrow I felt.” The chorus celebrates spiritual salvation: “He set me free, He set me free, He broke the bonds of prison for me, I’m glory-bound my Jesus to see, For glory to God, He set me free.”
“THE BLOOD THAT STAINED THE OLD RUGGED CROSS” 1942
This is one of Albert’s slower songs. It contemplatively focuses on Jesus dying on the cross. He describes the atoning death as Jesus being “All alone in agony” and as the place where Jesus “gave His life to save the world from loss.” The emphasis of the hymn is driven home in verse three with the words, “What an awful death He died to pardon you and me.”
3: SONGS ABOUT HEAVEN
Albert’s hymns have deep roots in the Great Depression years. Other songs join “I’ll Fly Away” as full of hope for a more promising future. They’ve continued to encourage Christians in each generation since they were written. The following three songs are in that category of surviving the trials of this life while looking forward to eternity in Heaven.
“THIS WORLD IS NOT MY HOME” 1936-
The hymn opens with the Biblical theme of living as pilgrims in a strange land: “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through” (Psalm 39:12, Hebrews 11:13). It then adds Jesus’ teaching about treasures (Matthew 6:19-21). The recurring phrase is “and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
“I’LL MEET YOU IN THE MORNING” 1936
Heaven is also a place where we’ll know others. Albert’s lyrics for this hymn were strongly inspired by the book of Revelation chapter 21. He describes Heaven as a place where “sorrow has drifted away” (Revelation 21:4), “There will be no more disappointments, and nobody shall die” (verse 4), and he says he’ll meet friends “On the streets of that city of gold” (verse 21).
“IF WE NEVER MEET AGAIN THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN” 1945
This song wasn’t a revisit of previous ideas. Albert wrote it during WWII when young men he knew would go off to fight and never return. During those years it became a comfort for families who lost loved ones in the war.
In 1941, Albert’s mentor, E.M. Bartlett, died (the most popular hymn he penned was “Victory In Jesus”-1939). The Hartford Music Company passed into other hands. In 1943, Albert started his own enterprise-the Albert E. Brumley Music Company. Toward the end of the decade–1948–Albert bought the Hartford Music Company.
In the 1930s, gospel quartets were singing Albert’s songs on the radio. Friends would call him and say, “Albert, turn your radio on.” In 1937, he turned those words into the song, “Turn Your Radio On.” Quartets soon sang that very song on the radio.
As for “I’ll Fly Away,” it’s been called the most recorded gospel song ever. It’s been chosen for recordings by people as diverse as Elvis Presley, George Jones, Aretha Franklin, and the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 2004, a Jars of Clay rendition appeared on “Wow Worship: Red.” Since then, David Crowder among others has used it in concert.
According to IMDB, “I’ll Fly Away” has been used on the soundtracks of three Hollywood films in the past 16 years: “The Apostle” (1997); “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000); and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008).
Another imprint of himself Albert left on the world of gospel music is an annual gospel sing he and his sons, Bob and Bill, started in 1969.The 46th annual Albert Brumley Gospel music Sing will be in Lebanon, Missouri on August 6-9 of 2014.
After a fruitful life of promoting Jesus through song, Albert flew away to Heaven on November 15, 1977. The collection of songs he wrote still endures.
LET ME KNOW: How has Albert’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Collins, Ace, Turn Your Radio On. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1999.
- Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
Use the link below to find a variety of Albert’s songs sung by various performers. You can also individually search the ten songs I’ve mentioned.
You may also want to read these posts about other gospel songwriters of the 2oth century-