“I’ll Fly Away” and the Prisoner

On October 9, 2013, the state of Arizona executed the 71-year-old Edward H. Schad, Jr. by lethal injection in Florence, Arizona. Schad, the oldest person on the state’s death row, had been convicted of killing a man during a robbery almost 35 years earlier.

The warden asked Schad if he had any last words. And the inmate responded, “Well, after 34 years, I’m free to fly away home. Thank you, warden. Those are my last words.”

The Song That Inspired the Last Words

Reverend Ronald Koplitz, who was Schad’s pastor and who met the prisoner in 1981 while serving as prison chaplain, explained that the last words were a reference to the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” Rev. Koplitz had become friends with Schad and kept in touch with him after his time as prison chaplain.

Rev. Koplitz gave Schad the song “I’ll Fly Away” a few weeks before the execution.  And apparently, Schad felt a connection to the song.

“I’ll Fly Away”

The song that gave some comfort to the prisoner in his final moments before being killed goes back to 1929.  In that year, Albert E. Brumley wrote “I’ll Fly Away.” The wonderful hymn, about eternal life and flying away “to that home on God’s celestial shore,” is one of the most popular gospel songs of all time.

There are a number of great versions of “I’ll Fly Away.” The song has appeared in several movies, including in nice a version by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Doc Watson played an instrumental version of “I’ll Fly Away” in his last public performance.  And the song appeared in The Waltons.

Here is a great live version by Gillian Welch.

“The Prisoner” Inspired the Song that Inspired a Prisoner

When Schad referenced the song on the death gurney in Arizona, he likely did not know that his invocation of the song inside prison walls sort of brought the hymn home. When Brumley began writing the song while picking cotton, he was inspired by a song called “The Prisoner’s Song.”

Brumley thought about that song regarding a prisoner thinking of leaving his love behind.  And he used a brilliant analogy using prison to represent life on earth.

Brumley was inspired by specific lyrics in “The Prisoner’s Song.” The line “Now, if I had the wings of an angel,/Over these prison walls I would fly” led to Brumley’s theme about flying away.

In this video, Johnny Cash sings “The Prisoner’s Song” on a January 20, 1971 episode of his TV show.

During the introduction, Cash refers to the popularity of “The Prisoner’s Song.” Vernon Dalhart initially recorded the song in 1924 as a B-side to his version of “The Wreck of the Old 97.” “The Prisoner’s Song,” which likely was written by Dalhart’s cousin Guy Massey and/or Guy’s brother Robert Massey, became a big hit for Dalhart.

In “I’ll Fly Away,” Brumley also retained the prison theme, using it as representing life on earth: “Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly.” It is not hard to see how Brumley’s wonderful song might bring some comfort to someone like Schad, strapped down on the execution gurney facing certain death. Music soothes both saints and sinners.

What is your favorite version of “I’ll Fly Aawy”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    One thought on ““I’ll Fly Away” and the Prisoner”

    1. I love the version from O Brother where art thou, but my favorite time hearing it was at a Willie Nelson show at the Beacon Theater. I guess he must have been segueing into it, but before I recognized it I turned to DH and said, wouldn’t it be great if he played I’ll Fly Away? And there it was.

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