Cover Versions: I’ll Fly Away

Oscar gave me a bunch of crap about my first foray into these, so maybe he’ll like this one a little better.

He ought to, because there’s no classical and no techno in this one. It’s more down-home, so swamp rats should get a nice charge out of it.

Nobody watches Letterman anymore – but if you chanced upon it last night you might have caught something kinda special. Specifically, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band getting together to do a version of the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away”…

Of course, “I’ll Fly Away” has been around forever. It was originally written as a hymn in 1929 by a guy named Alfred E. Brumley, who was the pre-eminent gospel composer of the last century. There were a number of early recordings of the song, but the first one which really hit it big was a 1948 version by The Chuck Wagon Gang…

Hank Williams did one before long…

And naturally Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley would get into the act if Hank did…

But there was a version put out by the Kossoy Sisters in 1956 which might be a little more recognizable to current audiences – if for no other reason than it was picked up and included in the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou

Another version that appeared on that same soundtrack was done by Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch, and this is the one I think is the best country/bluegrass version ever done…

Krauss has a solo version of it that’s pretty good as well…

But Johnny Cash did a version of it, too…

Naturally, if something’s a blue grass tune, Ralph Stanley has dipped a finger in it…

Some of the more contemporary country singers have also taken a stab at it. This was Randy Travis’ version…

And Alan Jackson’s…

The song hasn’t just been a blue-grass tune over the years. Blues guitarist Steve Goodman popularized a version in the late 1970’s that went something like this…

(Link for those who don’t see the embed)

And folk singer Carolyn Hester did a version with Bob Dylan on harmonica in 1966…

Aretha Franklin has done it, though typically she’ll do it as a funeral dirge…

Etta James’ version is a little less of a tearjerker. A lot less, in fact, as it’s pretty good at getting you up out of that church pew and singin’ along…

Kanye West has even done a version of it – and he actually sings in this one…

The Swedish-Congolese soul band Avalon does a pretty cool version as well…

And it’s crossed over from blue grass and soul into other iterations. For example, there’s the Christian rock version by Jars Of Clay…

The British harmony group All Angels did a version…

There’s even a version in Navajo out there…

As you can see from the original video in this post, though, I’ll Fly Away has been a favorite on the New Orleans Jazz scene for a long time. Here’s the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s version…

And here’s the Hot 8 Brass Band teaming up with the Blind Boys of Alabama to do a kick-ass live version…

It’s such a pervasive New Orleans favorite that even imitation New Orleans brass bands include it in their offerings. Here’s the Jack Brass Band – out of Minneapolis – doing a version…

As much as I love the New Orleans brass band versions, though, and as beautiful as Allison Krauss’ renditions are, it’s extremely hard to beat the one put out a couple of years back by the Southern rock supergroup The Word, which was a smashup of legendary steel guitar man Robert Randolph, keyboardist John Medeski and the three members of the North Mississippi All Stars. Unfortunately there isn’t a YouTube version of it, but hit the link and you can listen to the audio. It’s an instrumental version that just flows. Randolph is a wizard on that thing.

There have been hundreds of versions of this song, many of them terrific in their own way, and there will certainly be more. It’s just a beautiful piece of Americana – and thankfully one which has made its way as a staple of several distinct musical styles.

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