‘I’ll Fly Away,’ or maybe not . . .

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When I and several of the girls came into the theater for the folk art musical, a pleasant man handed each of us a piece of paper with words on it.

“Now, sing up,” he commanded with a jovial wink and grin.

We settled into our seats with Merri Grace sitting to my right. Once situated, I looked at the song sheet and discovered it to be my favorite hymn.

“Oh boy!” I exclaimed excitedly. “We get to sing ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ I love this song.”

Merri Grace looked solemnly at her song sheet and shook her head. “I’ve never heard of it.” This, in my opinion, is akin to a Southerner saying, “I never heard of General Sherman.” It’s a travesty.

Never one for taking shocking situations subtly, I threw up my hands, jumped forward in my seat and turned to exclaim incredulously not quietly, “What! You’ve never heard of ‘I’ll Fly Away’? What kind of Southerner are you?”

She shrugged. “Well, maybe if I hear it, I’ll know it. How does it go?”

I sang the first verse and part of the chorus. She raised an eyebrow and responded dryly, “Maybe if it had a tune with it, I’d recognize it.”

That would be an unkind reference to the fact that I am tone deaf, a price I have paid for those years I spent tagging along on the NASCAR circuit with cars that refused to wear mufflers. But at least all I lost was my mid-range hearing, which keeps me from hearing pitch. Richard Petty, on the other hand, has a hard time hearing much of anything. At least, I can hear much of something.

I wrinkled my nose in aggravation. “Ha. Ha. Don’t try to distract from the fact that you, a supposedly properly anointed Southerner, don’t know ‘I’ll Fly Away.’”

Her sister, sitting on the other side, joined in. “How could you not know that song?”

Finally, it was determined that Merri Grace, who was raised Lutheran but turned Methodist, had somehow just missed one of the most performed songs in gospel music history. In fact, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, claims that it is the most recorded gospel song in history but I, the skeptical Southerner I can be at times, find it hard to believe that it beats “Amazing Grace” in that category.

Albert E. Brumley wrote over 800 songs in his career, including my favorite hymn, which he penned in 1929 while picking cotton in his native Oklahoma. “Actually, I was dreaming of flying away from that cotton field when I wrote it,” he later said.

Now, Merri Grace may be of a more formal church upbringing than I am but still I was bum-fuzzled (a Southern term for puzzled) as to how she had missed hearing a song so indicative of Southern culture. And, as is often the case, I just couldn’t let it go.

I furrowed my brow and tilted my head. “Didn’t you see ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’”

“Yes.” This surprised me because I wouldn’t have thought it to be high-brow enough for Merri Grace. She tends to be the debutante kind of Southern girl.

“Well, they sang it in the movie.”

It was obvious that Merri Grace was bored with the conversation and really didn’t care to get into further discussion but I wasn’t letting go.

Continuing in my animated style, I proclaimed, “When I die, I want them to sing ‘I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Dixie’ at my funeral.” I smiled. “I want them to sing about where I’ve been and where I’m going.” I folded my arms and nodded authoritatively.

It was then that a lady on the row behind, reached over, tapped Merri Grace on the shoulder and said, “I’m from Ohio and even I know ‘I’ll Fly Away.’”

I smiled wickedly at Merri Grace. I think that says it all.

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