Music

What's the Best "I'll Fly Away" Ever?

Hear how I came down with Post Traumatic Vegas Syndrome

Today I made a contribution to the continuing BPP series, "Best Song in the World Today," with the classic spiritual "I'll Fly Away." The choice was inspired by the jarring experience of going from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas last weekend.

My wife and I went from a place created entirely by nature over several hundred million years to a place created entirely by humans in a geological instant, and it was quite a shock to the system. (The experience came complete with a guy in a "Buttweiser" T-shirt that proclamed him the "King of Rears.") Hear about the whole epic debacle here.

"I'll Fly Away" was originally written by Albert Brumley in 1929, and since then it's become one of the most covered songs of all time. It's been performed by everyone from Andy Griffith to Kanye West. Working on this segment actually got me thinking: What's the best version of "I'll Fly Away" ever?

I actually had a little debate with myself over which version to use. I have three on my iPod: Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch from the "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack, Johnny Cash from those Rick Rubin sessions late in his life, and Steve Goodman performing it live. (As Goodman correctly points out while introducing it, "This is the song that proves you don't have to know very much about Jesus to like spirituals.")

I think those Cash/Rubin sessions are a little hit or miss, and this one's more a miss. (I can only hear Johnny Cash sing about death as he approaches it for so long before it starts sounding less poignant and more opportunistic.) The Goodman version is good, but a little less melodic than what I wanted for this segment. Not surprisingly he goes with more of a talking blues approach, which was one of his strengths. So I chose the Krauss/Welch rendition. But there are so many more.

Take a listen to some of these renditions of "I'll Fly Away" and tell us which one you like best...

- Allison Krauss & Gillian Welch

- Johnny Cash

- Steve Goodman

- Kanye West

- The Kossoy Sisters (This version is the one actually featured in the film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" The Krauss/Welch rendition appears in its place on the soundtrack.)

- Jimmy Swaggart (Yes, that Jimmy Swaggart)

- John Legend

- The Stanley Brothers

- Some random kids on YouTube

Comments

 

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I'm a straight up sucker for the Krause/Welch version. Every time it come's on from one of my mixes, i roll down the windows, turn it all the way up and sing at the top of my lungs.
And, at 31, as much of a lapsed Christian as I am, I know that I want that tune played at my funeral.

Sent by tara | 10:04 AM | 6-17-2008

Stanley Brothers with Alison and Gillian following close behind. I'm an Ohio native proud that all my people come from WV and KY, so I lean heavy towards true Bluegrass. I actually enjoyed all the versions as I love this song I grew up singing.

Sent by T. Weiss | 10:30 AM | 6-17-2008

I prefer the old school sound of the Stanley Brothers version, but the Kanye West arrangement has nice harmonies. Wasn't this song also referenced in the opening credits music for the 1990's series, "I'll Fly Away"?

Sent by eliz.s. (@elizs) | 10:37 AM | 6-17-2008

I have to admit that Krauss and Welch do the song justice, but I am so happy to see that you mentioned Steve Goodman. He is one of my heroes and seeing his name really put a smile on my face. His slide guitar is great and he does a great job of finding the joy in the song. Not too bad for a little Jewish kid.

Sent by Chris Holder | 10:51 AM | 6-17-2008

1) Kossoy Sisters - most interesting harmony and bluegrass treats this song sooo well
2) John Legend - love the organ
3) Stanley Brothers/Allison Krauss - too close to call
4) Johnny Cash - Very minimalist. If this wasn't Cash he wouldn't make the list
5) Random Kids - ballsy
6) Kanye - Not bad, good gospel version
7) Steve Goodman - If it didn't go off the rails it would rank higher
8) My five year old - He's got a beautiful voice
9) Anyone else - would be better than swaggart
10) Jimmy Swaggart - FAIL!

Sent by Scott | 10:56 AM | 6-17-2008

Dan Pashman, I'm sorry you didn't have a great time in Las Vegas. However, it's my home, and it really bugs me that you trashed it in print. There ARE sidewalks on the strip. They're outside the casinos, down near the road (where most sidewalks are.) In fact, the local American Volkssport Association group has a planned walk up and down the strip, to enjoy the various views. I'm sorry you booked a crowded strip hotel and went to (what sounds like it might have been) the coffee shop. I'm glad you enjoyed the roller-coaster. If you'll tell me where you live, I'll be happy to come visit and write an article about your home-town. The difference is I'll look for the pleasant and enjoyable aspects to write about, instead of focusing on my own poor choices.

Sent by Susan in Las Vegas | 11:01 AM | 6-17-2008

Peer Gynt and C+C Music Factory in the same piece?!?! You go Dan!

Sent by Joe | 11:13 AM | 6-17-2008

Hey Susan, don't take it too personally, I'm sure Las Vegas has many redeeming qualities that residents enjoy. But I'd presume you find some elements of the city more pleasurable than others. Every city has touristy areas that residents tend to avoid, and I'd suspect that the split between tourist and local hangouts in Las Vegas is as stark as it is anywhere. (I doubt you spend any more time at the Mandalay Bay pool than I spend in Times Square.)

As for "my own poor choices," we agree on that. I never suggested in my segment that my choices were anything but poor.

Sent by Dan Pashman, NPR | 11:38 AM | 6-17-2008

Best "I'll Fly Away" ever?.......Trudy Hawkins (aka my late grandmother). I stayed with her in the summertime when I was a little kid growing up in Mayodan, North Carolina, a small town of 2000, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She would sit at her sewing machine and sing this as she sewed curtains. I grew up singing this song at the First Baptist Church in Mayodan, I've since become disillusioned and left the church, but the song still has meaning and memory for me.

Sent by Julie in North Carolina | 1:14 PM | 6-17-2008

goodman...hands down, up and flappin...his sound is the Most texturally interesting.

Sent by janet | 2:26 PM | 6-17-2008

Best "I'll Fly Away" version? The one sung at Christ the King Catholic Church, San Diego, CA at 8:30 am mass by the Gospel choir that has me playing bass.

But I might be a bit biased.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 2:54 PM | 6-17-2008

Good to have you back on the air Dan! The song, however, was an insipid bit of awfulness. If there's an instrumental version I suppose that would be my favorite.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 4:32 PM | 6-17-2008

I like Nickel Creek's version...personally. And the non-touristy part of Vegas is awesome, even if unbearably, painfully hot.

Sent by m.rawlins | 12:59 AM | 6-18-2008

@Dave Wiley, when people at my job find out that this White boy plays Gospel music, some tell me, "You know, I LOVE Gospel music. I can't stand Christianity, but I LOOOOVE Gospel music." I tell them, "However you get there is fine with me."

If you want the instrumental version, here's what you do: get a karioki track for any Gospel song written from 1920-1945. Believe me, they are all the same chords. That's only a slight exageration. I'll even chart it for you:

Verse:
|I |I |IV |I V7 |I |vii* iii vi |ii V7 |I V7 ||

Chorus:
|I V |I V |IV V |I V7 |I |vii* iii vi |ii V7 |I V7 ||

I've pretty much written the chord chart for half of the "National Baptist Hymnal."

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 1:08 PM | 6-18-2008

My first thought was the Kanye West version. But seriously, Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch are my gold standard. The other versions (minus Swaggart's) are great, but the two women just kill that song.

Pashman, that was one of the best yarns I've ever heard on NPR. it got the full "email to all your friends" treatment. Hope to hear more of your storytelling skillz in the future.

Sent by Sky Bluesky | 2:11 PM | 6-22-2008

How strange...we were at the grand canyon that same week, went to the cochran show, and "I'll fly away" just stuck in my mind. I am of the "old-timey" age agroup. So, back in my office I decided to look up the lyrics online and...
Thanks for the compendium of versions.

Sent by Mari | 11:44 AM | 6-25-2008

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