“I’ll Fly Away” as soul-scorching ballad

A friend of mine sent this to me a week or so ago and I’ve been pretty much captivated by it ever since. It’s The Singing Cookes from a live album in 1977 covering “I’ll Fly Away,” though covering barely begins to capture what’s going on here. Listen:

KC, who posted the clip on youtube and sent it to me, will argue that it’s the Cookes at their best. Perhaps. Unarguably, it’s a pretty pristine artifact of a certain kind of southern gospel at a very certain moment. Partly, it’s that I’ve never heard “I’ll Fly Away” (which, contra the youtube annotation, isn’t a hymn but a gospel song) reconceived quite this way. Partly it’s the harmony, which is rather like a cross between the Goodmans and the Kingsmen.

Mostly, though, it’s Jeanette Cooke — not just the raw magnetism of her throaty singing style, but the apparently unfiltered scriptlessness of her monologue (indeed, of her stage presence in general) as well. It’s a meandering, heedless, lurching bit of testimony, of course. A mess - nay, a hot mess, actually - as far as monologues go. But I’m utterly smitten with it at the same time. It’s no small feat of showmanship and charisma, after all, to transform a toe-tapping feel-good hop-along gospel ditty into a soul-scorching ballad of bereftness and longing for spiritual flight.

And to the extent that there had to be a more or less settled expectation of how “I’ll Fly Away” is supposed to be staged in order for this idiosyncratic arrangement to even have half a chance of working (and, conversely, to the extent that the hyper-emotional style is so ubiquitous is southern gospel these days that it’s not enough to slow an old standard down and draw it out for effect this way - you also must have strings and horns and timpani and penny whistles banging and blowing and going at full tilt behind a digital chorus to rival a tabernacle choir) … well, in this context, it may well be possible to understand this song as having appeared at precisely the right moment for its own possibility, in a window of time opened just long enough to make this bit of southern gospel idiosyncrasy work downright magically.

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  1. KC wrote:

    OMG - I didn’t think you’d be so mezmerized with that when I sent it. I have loved Jeanette Cooke for YEARS. Growing up in southwest Virginia, they were always coming around. We’d go hear her every time. I think she’s a southern gospel angel. :) She actually sent me a card with money when I graduated high school. Good people, I believe. :)

  2. Jason wrote:

    One of my all-time favorite versions of this old song! I have it on cassette somewhere. Jeanette can really let ‘er fly!

  3. Tom wrote:

    Fantastic! I just happened to pick up this LP on eBay about a month ago, and I had to keep stopping and moving the needle back to listen to this song again and again.

  4. in agreement wrote:

    I have always loved the Cookes. Their concerts are like revival meetings. The lack of polish is meaningless because the emotional communication is both immediate and intense. When I have had the joy of hearing them live, I didnt have time or inclination, through tears and goosebumps, to critique the singing. Instead, I get caught up in the moments they create. Like Loretta Lynn, you sense that Jeanette is singing what she knows for sure. I have enjoyed a few contrived set lists that groups use to move a concert along. However, a noted producer, adequate voices, nice suits, good tracks, and all the praise that the southern gospel industry can heap on one another faded away when Jeanette let us come to her mother’s funeral with a testimony and a song. I am sure there are better singers and better crafted songs than the Cooke’s and their song list. But, I can’t think, in southern gospel, of a better interpreters of a set of feelings about life (the good parts and the hard to face parts), death, and heaven than Jeanette and the Singing Cookes. I nearly flew away with her.

  5. Bones wrote:

    The NQC will not book them anymore. They said the NQC can live without them, they can live without NQC.

  6. Jason wrote:

    #5- that’s a real shame. Even when they were on the set, it was usually just TUE nights. I’m sure they will have no problem filling those dates!

  7. Extra Ink wrote:

    I’m not a fan of the Cookes simply because they aren’t my style. However, I will say that I’ve been at NQC when then were on the main stage….they have a HUGE following. Hundreds if not thousands were leaving after the Cookes finished their set just because they stuck around to hear them. There is a fan base there that is quite dedicated…

  8. irishlad wrote:

    4.in agreement..”i nearly flew away with her” ha, i like that, i’m totally in agreement. :)

  9. James Hales wrote:

    I remember my dad bought that recording years ago because of that song. We saw them live for the first time in Raleigh, NC at the Civic Center back in 1983 or 1984 (I was 11 or 12 yrs old). The Cookes sang
    “I’ll Fly Away” and my dad absolutely loved their version.

    Thinking back, I wish I had played that song at his funeral. He would have loved it!

  10. Ode wrote:

    #3, you actually own a real vinyl player? neat, that’s so antiquecool..I never seen one live,well, only as DJ mixers. Heard from many that there are something really special about the sound of vinyl recordings.

    #4 you are the one IA that have posted before, may I ask?Avery, you mentioned wanting to take it easy,and i understand.But u still love blogging business, so as it was recently suggested, ‘d you consider getting some additional posters? Noone can match King of Wordsmithing Ave,of course,but just to liven things up? here, great minds with troublemaker’s spirit and a gift of delicious gab abound, God be praised! - In Agr, Soli,Irish, HectorLuna,Cdguy,Cynical,Q-man, Wade,Alan,etc etc maybe you can have a quest post every week or few days?

    I confess selfishness - facing 4 weeks of training in the next 3 months,stuck in hotel…i’ve been in a whirlpool since yesterday,all pruned up now,I need some *unsensored* christian musical reads. You dont want me to hit nightclubs out of boredom, right? to have a lost sheep is on your conscience.. :D :D

    Start the writers pool? :) toda raba!

  11. BUICK wrote:

    I appear to be a minority of one, but I can’t get past the diction to be able to appreciate the solo. I have the same problem with the Inspirations and a handful of other performers who are just too cornbread for me. But bless their hearts, there are others who go for cornbread…and collard greens and fatback. Just not my taste.

  12. irishlad wrote:

    11..ain’t you the cultured one ;)

  13. BUICK wrote:

    @#11 - I appreciate the affected redneckism coming from an Irishman. Cute turn of phrase. Not so much a matter of culture as it is regionalism, I suppose. If I had grown up in Appalachia, I would probably speak like the Cookes do. If I had grown up in Ireland, I would probably speak like an Irishman. Some people may find a certain accent to be down-home and charming and others may find the same accent to be abrasive. To wit: some people are charmed by Sarah Palin’s accent, some find it off-putting. Some liked George W. Bush’s Texas twang and others made fun of it. As I wrote before, I was not passing judgment (musical or otherwise), just not my taste. (Tammy Wynette made a fortune singing music I didn’t care for. I’m OK with that and I suspect she was, too.)

  14. quartet-man wrote:

    #13m Buick. Yeah, and some like Buicks and other Toyotas. :D

  15. lee65 wrote:

    The Cookes were one of the first groups i remember hearing and played a huge part in drawing me to Southern gospel .i love this version of i’ll fly away. I have a slower version by Vern Gosdin also that’s good ,i don’t know why but Vern and Jeanette’s vocal styling has always seemed similar to me.

  16. KC wrote:

    For other Jeanette Cooke fans - this is one of their best. Ignore the first 18 seconds - the rest is worth getting thru the crappy video quality at the beginning. Nice that it has over 80K hits on YouTube, too. :)


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