When Albert Brumley was a young boy, growing up at Rock Island, Oklahoma, near his birthplace of Spiro, a singing teacher encouraged him to get further musical training and recommended the Hartford Musical Institute, part of the Hartford Music Company, in nearby Arkansas. In 1925, 19-year-old Brumley left his home with nothing but $3 in his pocket.
Driven by his dream, he walked 26 miles from Spiro to Hartford, AR, and knocked on E.M. Bartlett’s door. “Mr. Bartlett, I hear you can teach a fella ‘bout music”, the young Albert said. Even though they’d never met, Bartlett took Brumley in, letting him sleep on his couch with the understanding that Albert would go to work for the Hartford Music Company after graduating from the Hartford Music Institute. Brumley began his studies in January 1926 and stayed until spring 1927, then returned home to help on the family farm. During his time away from the Institute, Brumley got the idea for his most famous song: “I’ll Fly Away.”
“I thought of the theme and started working on it while I was picking cotton in 1928. I was out in the field by myself—or at least there wasn’t anyone close to me—and I got to humming this old song, 'The Prisoner’s Song.' Where it says, 'if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly,' . . . well, it suddenly dawned on me that I could use the world for a prison and heaven for freedom when we pass on. And I started working on that theory. You’ll notice in one stanza of 'I’ll Fly Away' it says, 'when the shadows of this life have grown, I’ll fly away, like a bird from prison bars has flown,' I paraphrased that from the old 'Prisoner’s Song.' "
"I'll Fly Away" is likely the most recorded gospel song of all time. Since its publication in 1932, the song has been recorded by thousands of artists and has sold millions of copies. Today there exist over 5,000 licensed recordings of the song, according to the I'll Fly Away Foundation (yes, that exists), and it has been recorded in countless languages.
Brumley worked as an itinerant singing-school teacher during the 1930s in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. He quit teaching to concentrate on songwriting, signing with the Stamps-Baxter gospel publishing company in 1936. He published his own first songbook in 1937, Albert E. Brumley's Book of Radio Favorites. He formed the Albert E. Brumley Music Company in 1943, and in 1948 he purchased the Hartford firm, gaining full control of his copyrights. "I'll Fly Away," “Jesus Hold My Hand,” "Turn Your Radio On," "If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven)," "I'll Meet You In The Morning," "Rank Stranger," and "He Set Me Free" are among a host of favorites written by Albert E. Brumley. He wrote over 800 songs and is considered by many to be the most influential American gospel composer of the twentieth century.
Just like “I’ll Fly Away,” the Brumley Gospel Sing was born in Oklahoma. Bob Brumley said his father and gospel singer-songwriter J.D. Sumner were at a 1968 meeting in Vinita when they began talking about staging an all-night singing. Events of that type were popular then. The Brumley Gospel Sing was launched at an outdoor rodeo arena in Springdale, Arkansas, the event continued there for 33 years. In 2002, the event moved to an air-conditioned indoor venue on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. In 2006, the event moved to Lebanon, Missouri, where it was known as the Albert E. Brumley Memorial Gospel Sing. It relocated again in 2016 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it is called the Brumley Gospel Sing.
Albert E. Brumley’s awards include inductions into the Country Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma and Arkansas Music Hall of Fame. His name graces a 13 mile stretch of highway in McDonald County, Missouri and he was named one of only five persons in the U.S. whose contributions directly affected 20th Century Gospel Music by the Gospel Music Association in Nashville, Tennessee. His songs have been inducted into the SESAC Hall of Fame and he has received “Citations of Achievement” from BMI Nashville. The Smithsonian Institution made a study of Gospel Music naming Albert E. Brumley “the greatest Gospel songwriter before World War II.
Brumley Music Company, located in Powell, Missouri, is a music publishing and production company founded in the early 1940s by Albert E. Brumley. It also operates The Hartford Music Group, the same music institute that young Brumley walked to Arkansas from Oklahoma in 1925. Brumley’s son Bob Brumley operates the company whose mission is to uphold Albert E. Brumley’s legacy while producing and providing inspirational music built on a rich tradition and heritage. Brumley’s hit Gospel song, “I’ll Fly Away” remains the most recorded song ever and serves as the company’s foundation “The I’ll Fly Away Foundation.” The company produces songbooks, the popular annual “Gospel Sing” four-day musical event, oversees the wide catalog of Brumley original music, publishing and licensing.
In 1975, Spiro staged an Albert E. Brumley Appreciation Day in honor of a favorite son. Brumley died in 1977.
Anyone who has performed any bit of farm work understands the intense physical and mental labor involved, so there can be no doubting this quote of Brumley’s: “Actually, I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote ‘I’ll Fly Away.’”