“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.Email this Post